Opera makes the grade at Allentown schools


Staff Writer

ALLENTOWN — A recent performance of “Aida” hit more than just the high notes at a local school.

Boheme Opera New Jersey’s presentation of “Inside Opera: Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida” at the Upper Freehold Regional Elementary/Middle School on Dec. 16 hit the spot for many of the students who attended the performance and were eager to hear a new form of music.

Having recently produced “Aida” on the main stage at the War Memorial in Trenton (Patriots Theater), Boheme Opera professionals brought a reduced adaptation of Verdi’s opera to students. The educational program was made possible by the Frank and Lydia Bergen Foundation, Merrill Lynch, Janssen Pharmaceutica and the Upper Freehold Regional PTA.

As part of the core curriculum standards of the state Department of Education, students watched the opera after familiarizing themselves with the story line during class studies.

When asked how she liked the performance, Laura Borton, 12, said, “I thought it was really great. I could definitely tell Aida’s difficulty in trying to make a life decision between her love for a man and her love for her country.”

When asked how she was able to interpret the story line of the opera, which was presented in Italian, Borton said, “I could tell through the music and the expressions on the singers’ faces and in their voices.”

Sarah Stanhope, 12, said she now thinks opera is “really cool.”

“I think a lot of people liked it,” Stanhope said. “I personally liked the outfits. Maybe I will go to the opera again some day.”

Sandra Milstein-Pucciatti, the pianist and program coordinator, said comments like the one Stanhope made are exactly why she started bringing opera into local schools.

“That’s why children should be exposed to opera at a young age,” Pucciatti said. “They should see an opera and then have the information to make a decision about it for themselves.”

Prior to the Boheme Opera performance in the school, Pucciatti said, teachers incorporated opera into many of their lesson plans.

“Believe it or not,” according to Paul Sulyok, the music teacher at Upper Freehold Regional Elementary/Middle School, “opera is the fastest growing type of music in society today.”

“For most, this is the first time seeing an opera,” Sulyok said. “Maybe [students] were not familiar with this type of singing, but now [they] can say [they] heard this special music called opera.”

The program starred soprano Othalie Graham, mezzo-soprano Grace Echauri, tenor Christian Sebek and baritone David Arnold.

Following the performance, the cast and crew participated in Inside Opera, where students had the opportunity to learn firsthand what it means to be a successful artist in the opera world.

When one student asked if it is hard to sing opera, Sebek, who portrayed Radames in the performance, said, “It hurts in the throat if you are not singing correctly.”

Sebek also told the students that besides Italian, he has performed in Russian, Spanish, French and English as well.

With regard to learning an opera in a different language, Graham, who portrayed Aida in the performance, said, “You have to know every word of the opera in the language that it is written in, and in English.”

Arnold, who played the part of Amonasro in the performance, added that it is necessary to know all of the parts of all the performers in an opera “so that you can easily respond to your fellow singers during a performance.”

With regard to preparing an opera for the stage, stage manager Reegan McKenzie said it takes her approximately two months to translate an opera from its original language into English and to prepare the staging.

“Once the performers are involved, we can usually block and run one scene in two hours,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie explained that a full opera production can contain between 50 and 100 people, including the chorus and the orchestra. Although the school performance used a narrator to illustrate what was going on in the opera, she said, performances usually use supertitles above the stage to express in English what is transpiring on stage.

The singers told the students that it can take them between two and four months to learn the music of a performance.

“We take the music to a coach, and they help us translate it,” Arnold said, “Then we have to learn the words and the music.”

One of the nicest aspects of performing as an opera singer, according to Echauri, who portrayed Amneris, is “traveling and going many places to perform.”

Echauri said she has traveled to places such as Bangkok and Thailand, while other singers noted performing in Sweden, Italy, Canada, Berlin, and Singapore.

Prior to ending the question-and-answer session, Graham gave the audience some advice.

“Most of you, except for a couple, didn’t cover your ears during our performance,” Graham said. “When you are in opera house, you shouldn’t cover your ears.”

Graham also asked the students a question. When she inquired as to how many students would consider attending an opera again, nearly all of the hundreds of kids in the audience raised their hands.

The performance also included Joseph R. Pucciatti, artistic director, who adapted the script and the music; Patricia DelSordo, hair/wig/makeup design; Irene Rose, media director; and Cathleen Boris-Smith, administrator.

For more information about Boheme Opera, visit www.bohemeopera.com.