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Planting seeds for opera appreciation

Organization reaches 40,000 students a year through its outreach program


Even opera singers understand that their artform of choice can be easy to make fun of at times, even if the things people assume about opera are wrong.

“People think operas are impossible to understand, or that they’re just people screaming on stage,” said Cherity Koepke, director of education and community programs and director of Opera Colorado’s Young Artist Program. “A lot of people think opera singers are all old, but they don’t understand the diversity of voices coming from the next generation of singers.”

Nathan Ward, who initially studied cello and piano in high school, understands the hesitancy many people have towards the centuries-old musical form.

“I was skeptical even while I was watching my first opera, right until the end, when I heard all these motifs woven together,” Ward, who is a member of the Young Artist Program, remembers. “Now, I get to be part of the first opera experience for students all over Colorado, and that means a lot.”

Since its creation in 1983, Opera Colorado has been working to keep the form alive and thriving in the metro area and elsewhere in the state through performances at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, in classrooms, and theaters in towns like Telluride and Steamboat Springs.

“We produce two large-scale, grand operas a year, and a contemporary, smaller chamber piece in the winter,” said Greg Carpenter, general and artistic director of Opera Colorado. “Some of our most significant work is our work with young people — by going into schools and touring with our young adults program, we reach about 40,000 students a year.”

In May, Opera Colorado will be producing Giuseppe Verdi’s comic opera, “Falstaff,” but it has an equally exciting day coming on Saturday, March 24 — Family Day at the Opera. Created as a free way to introduce parents and children alike to opera, the event allows people to see members of the Young Artist Program perform shortened, English versions of the touring productions — in this case, “Cinderella” and “The Elixir of Love.”

There will also be activities, food, and other fun ways to experience the world of opera. Audiences literally sit on stage at the performers’ feet.

“After being with the organization’s education department for years, I’ve found the best way to get children in opera is to show them the classics, instead of operas created specifically for children,” Koepke said. “What we do is abridge the opera, and translate it into English, but it’s still the classic. We’ve also found making connections to their lives helps kids relate to the opera.”

The Young Artist Program is eight months long and provides the seven members with smaller mainstage roles, mentorship, coaching, and opportunities to do community outreach. As a member, Ward sees how open to opera children can be, especially without the preconceived notions so many adults are saddled with.

“It’s great that kids be willing to try this art form, or at least listen to more of it, because of the performances we do,” he said. “This music has existed for centuries because it is good, and if we can get kids to have an open mind, that’s great.”

Even if the children who watch the opera aren’t inspired to be a performer of any kind, there’s still a variety of careers available, from lights and tech to make up and sound design.

“The themes of opera are as relevant today as when they were written,” Carpenter said. “Going to the opera a great chance to do something social with people, something you can go to dinner and discuss.”


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