Not many people get the chance to see an opera singer up close and personal. Even in a recital hall or opera house, there is a distance created by the stage. The connection comes from the music and the artistic involvement on both ends of the spectrum.
But on Tuesday, New York students were able to get an experience few others can claim to have – seeing an opera singer up-close. And by up-close, I mean arms length.
Brian Jagde, the tenor making major house and role debuts around the United States and Europe over the coming months, came to Time In Children’s Arts Initiative and performed a selection from Bernstein’s West Side Story alongside pianist Lara Downes, who also performed “Over the Rainbow.”
Speaking to a class of first graders, Downes and some of the organization’s own teachers discussed the narrative of the famed Robert Wise film that won numerous awards back in 1961. In a discussion suitable to the times, themes of difference and acceptance were broached, with students encouraged to participate with their thoughts on the causes and solutions for the conflict between the Sharks and Jets.
At one point in the presentation, students were shown a scene between Tony and Maria in which they discussed running “Somewhere” where they would not be constantly pursued by conflict and pain and everyone would be accepted regardless of their affiliation. Students were subsequently asked what their somewhere would be and in a moment of innocent precociousness one student responded “New York City.”
After discussing the film, students were allowed to create their own art while Jagde and Downes performed. As the tenor’s massive sound filled the room with the rapturous “Maria,” numerous students looked up from their work, their mouths agape at what they were listening to.
The tenor, who specializes in dramatic repertoire, admitted that he actually struggled to pick a selection to sing for the children.
“Most of the roles that I sing are so dark and most the characters die,” he explained. “I wanted to find a piece that was appropriate for these kids that wasn’t ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ I could have done that, and maybe in the future I will, but most of the arias I sing are a little too dramatic for first graders. Not even a popular tune like ‘La Donna e Mobile’ fits despite the music, because the text is so misogynistic.”
“Eventually I hope that they can grow to learn that those things exist in the world, just like they know at home that they exist, and that there is a way around all that.”
Time In Children’s Arts Initiative educates at-risk children in numerous art forms including performing arts and visual arts. The Initiative consistently brings in talent to talk to the children about great works of art and even engages them in the creative process. Earlier this year, soprano Ailyn Perez was brought in to sing and coach children on a scene from Puccini’s “La Boheme.” The children were then assigned to create art based on their impressions of the opera.