Behind the Scenes Interviews

Q & A: Kaufman Music Center’s Legendary Executive Director Lydia Kontos On Importance of Music & Opera Education, Working with Soprano Ailyn Pérez

We all know that the future of art in any country resides with the younger generations.

Achieving that passing of the torch is far easier said than done and few embark fully on said commitment. Lydia Kontos, Executive Director of the Kaufman Music Center, is one such person who has made it her life to champion music education and develop children’s interactions with art. She joined the organization in 1979 when the center was called the Hebrew Arts School and served 400 students.

Kontos was named Director of Merkin Concert Hall in 1989 and then took on the Executive Director position six years later. In 1991, the Hebrew Arts School turned into the Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center. By 1996 she founded the Special Music School, which is a New York City public school that provides both academics and intensive musical training to gifted children.

Kontons recently announced that after 40 years, she is set to retire

For this hard work, she is slated to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Kaufman Music Center’s Annual Gala on Monday, May 14, 2018.

The gala is set to feature musical performances from Sir James Galway and Lady Jeanne Galway as well as soprano Ailyn Pérez, who will be performing with vocal students from the school.

“It is pure joy to be celebrating Ms. Kontos’ Lifetime Achievement Award,” Pérez noted in a statement. “She has been a visionary supporter and a champion for music education, creating these extraordinary programs that not only foster young talent, but that also nurture and encourage children through in-depth mentorship programs. We celebrate Lydia not only for envisioning such incredible programs for the KMC, but also for building the dedicated and inspired community of donors and supporters of these programs. Her time and energy has enriched the lives of countless students and families, and therefore has energized communities and the future of the arts.”

OperaWire recently had an opportunity to talk to the woman of the hour about her experiences and future goals in furthering her life’s mission.

OperaWire: How does Kaufman Music Center incorporate opera into the education of the students? What are the aims and methods employed?

Lydia Kontos: Students at Special Music School, our K-12 public school for musically gifted children, can choose to officially major in voice beginning in ninth grade, but children in the younger grades are very much engaged with opera as well. They learn to sight-sing and study opera in music theory class; they take field trips to the opera and sing opera choruses in the middle school choir. Some of our students sing in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus.

At the high school level, our vocal majors typically begin with art songs and then progress to operatic arias at an appropriate vocal level. Developed for Special Music School by Kaufman Music Center faculty members, the vocal curriculum helps students hone their technique while also focusing on the emotional, human component of the music. Opera is about basic human emotions taken to extremes, which makes it a perfect vehicle for teenagers. It’s cathartic to both sing and to watch.

Studying opera offers so many auxiliary benefits. Our students sing in many languages and study a broad range of composers, eras and cultures. They build their skills as musicians as they learn how to interact with orchestras and conductors. We offer private lessons and great teachers who specialize in teenage voices, which sets Special Music School apart from other performing arts high schools. The students are very diverse, and mostly not from cultural backgrounds where they grew up going to the opera. The opportunities they’ve been given at SMS have really opened them up to operatic repertoire, which they appreciate profoundly. They just really get the whole idea of opera and the depth of the music. I think it’s a great sign that this year the girls’ choir has been begging to perform Poulenc!

OW: Obviously these are young students, but do you mount any operas in the program? Or scenes?

LK: Each year we showcase Special Music School High School vocal majors at a major performance. The students have mounted a hugely successful, fully-staged production of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” – accompanied by a Baroque orchestra made up of their classmates – as well as scenes from operas by Mozart, Verdi, Bizet, Offenbach, Delibes and others.

OW: What is the greatest challenge of educating children on classical music and opera and why, in your opinion, is it so vital?

LK: The challenge of teaching classical music and opera to young children is both financial and cultural. Our school system and our culture seem to think that music is marginal as a subject. And it is not. Study after study demonstrates that music enhances learning. Reading and mathematics also enhance learning. Music is vital, and it deserves to be a subject in its own right. Music is part of the cake, not just the icing. Its intellectual and emotional rewards are incomparable. There’s a reason that our own children at Special Music School do so well academically. And that’s because music is one of their subjects. The intrinsic value of classical music is so huge, and so well-documented, that it almost feels foolish to have to fight for it.

I personally wanted to be a musician, and I wanted my instrument to be my voice. But I started college when I was 16, and in those days they wouldn’t teach kids younger than 18 on that instrument. I couldn’t major in music because I wouldn’t have been able to start formally learning my major until I was a junior. It was a major disappointment. One of the things that makes me happy now is that there is a more evolved sense of how to teach voice properly to younger children. I’m very excited that we can give them the opportunity that I didn’t have.

OW: What is the importance of having a prominent artist like Ailyn Pérez perform at this year’s gala?

LK: We are so honored to have Ailyn perform at the Gala. In addition to what is sure to be a thrilling performance, she is an inspiring example of the power of music education to open doors for children and help them realize their full potential. She is a role model for our students and an eloquent advocate for the importance of music programs that can enrich lives and profoundly impact communities.

OW: Can you elaborate a bit more on her involvement with the students and the impact she has?

LK: Ailyn will perform at the gala with young women from Special Music School High School, a public school for musically gifted children that is a unique public/private partnership between Kaufman Music Center and the New York City Department of Education. As a mentor and role model, Ailyn has helped our teens to envision their career paths as singers. It’s been incredibly meaningful for our young vocal students, who come from diverse backgrounds, to work with Ailyn. It’s impossible to overestimate what it means for many of these young artists to meet a successful Latina opera performer. When they first heard her speaking in Spanish, some of them were on the verge of tears. Ailyn shows them that they can be part of the opera world, and that this world is not just an exclusive club of privileged people in tuxedoes and ball gowns.

OW: Besides Ailyn Pérez, are there any other opera artists you are looking to engage in the future? If so, who are they and what do you hope each brings to the program?

LK: We deeply appreciate the time that Ailyn has so generously given to Kaufman Music Center and our students and would love to work with other opera artists in the future. Having mentors and role models makes all the difference in the world for young artists, particularly those who may come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It would be an amazing opportunity for our vocal students to have the opportunity to work with other successful opera performers. At the top of my wish list would be Renée Fleming, who has done wonderful and inspiring work advancing the cause of music education.

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