Opera For Everyone – 10 Days at the Vail Opera Camp (National Youth Opera Academy)By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Matt Donnelly)
At the beginning of August, around 50 students went to Vail, Colorado to participate in the Vail Opera Camp.
The camp, which is a 10-day experience, brought students from ages 10 to 18 from all over the country to hone in on their craft of singing as well as learning about the art of opera from the backstage workings to set design, costumes, and props. There were even young conducting fellows.
Throughout the week, the students were immersed in rehearsing an opera, “The Tinker of Tivoli,” which they would present with a live audience and orchestra at the end of their 10 days.
The camp was founded in 2021 by the Artistic Director and CEO of the National Children’s Chorus Luke McEndarfer.
“The National Children’s Chorus commits itself to providing superlative vocal training and performance experiences, which include opera. Knowing that young people have such few opportunities to perform operas written specifically for them, I envisioned an educational program that would produce a fully-staged opera annually, as well as commission composers to write new operas for young voices,” McEndarfer told OperaWire.
“Our team firmly believes that youth must be engaged in opera to cultivate a life-long passion and appreciation for it. Failing to do so creates a false sense in grown-ups that ‘opera is not for me.'”
And that is what this camp fostered. Having attended it for four days, I witnessed students from all walks of life. Some were more passionate about Broadway, others were there for the conducting workshops, and others were there for the communal experience of belonging. Not all the students were set to take on music careers. But one thing was certain, they all learned how to appreciate and love the art form.
“We all know that opera is for everyone, and making it accessible and part of the lives of children is the key to enriching opera for years to come,” said McEndarfer. “This program, ideally, will generate a wave of opera performers and advocates who will fervently support the art form, whether by singing, attending, or working in the opera industry. We know there are many roles to play in opera, not just on stage, but in arts administration and behind the scenes. We see our program as launching the next generation of talented youth into the field.”
Over the course of 10 days, the students attended masterclasses with Jonathan McCullough, who honed in the important business aspects of opera and music, while McEndarfer gave a conducting masterclass. There were also singing masterclasses as well as acting classes. They worked with experts like Dylan F. Thomas and soprano Ashley Milanese.
An Inspiring Experience
Vail Opera Camp began in 2021 as an offset from the National Children’s Chorus (NCC) and has seen growth from its beginnings. Some of the students have been attending since its inception.
Fiorela Miria, who began Juilliard this fall, was one of those students who began with the NCC when she was 10 and was invited to participate in the first year of the program.
“I got invited to do the pilot program in 2021 and we were doing ‘Brundibár,’ which was super exciting. We did a full movie recording and that was incredible. And I said, ‘I am going to stay in this program as long as I can until I graduate.'”
For Miria, who is now pursuing a performance degree, the three years at Vail Opera Camp were a perfect way to shape her career aspirations. “The Vail Opera Camp helps support your passion for what you want to do. For anything, more specifically for music for me. But I have seen some who do the opera camp and are interested in the tech aspect. It is something that introduces and also inspires.”
For Kiran Subramanian, 2023 was the first time he was attending and it was his first interaction with opera. “I learned about the importance of how acting shapes opera. I also learned how important it is to stay grounded as an actor and that every motion has to have a purpose.”
Unlike Miria, Subramanian admitted that this camp was a way of getting more familiar with the art of opera. “I learned about the art of opera and how fun it could be. I very much enjoyed learning about it because I had no idea. I knew what opera was but there was so much I still had to learn about this art form.”
The camp was a way for Subramanian to continue to expand his craft on stage after doing school plays musicals and solos with the NCC. “This is the first time I had a solo role in an opera and in this very professional setting.”
However, he did admit that he does not see himself pursuing a career in Opera. However, he said that he would attend as much as he could. “I will definitely continue learning more about the art form and listening more to opera. I don’t know if I want it to be my full life but I do know that I want it to be a part of my life and I think it is something really cool and I could see myself going to performances and continuing to learn and grow and embrace this art form.”
Samuel Siskind, a member of the NCC since 2015, was also part of the pilot program in 2021 and noted it was “an awesome experience.” Having been part of the camp for two years, Siskind noted that it grew in very different ways. “They started admitting non-NCC members so anyone in the entire country could have a chance to audition and sing with us. I think that opened us up and leveled us up. We have so many new talented people and our vocal quality has skyrocketed. Our acting skills are so much better as well.”
One of the reasons Siskind sights the program has only gotten stronger is the inclusion of director Dylan F. Thomas and Grammy nominee Baritone Johnathan McCullough. “You see these guys working on these sets and they were beautiful. And we also did masterclasses where we learned about our voices. Jonathan gave a speech about how to succeed in business and it is a great speech.”
Not only is the Vail Opera Camp about music, it is also a place where people are able to connect.
“The Vail Opera Camp is a place to make friends,” said Miria. “With how incredibly talented everyone is, you kind of form a family bond with them especially because I have been with the NCC for eight years, and with the Vail Opera Camp, I got to highlight my talent and I got to study roles and got to show my vocal strengths. I also saw many people glue in the program. It changed people and it gave people a safe space to be creative but also be who they are.”
Subramanian also felt he got to bond more with many of the kids he had already known from his time at the NCC. “At the Vail Opera Camp, I made so many friends. You eat with them, you go to acting classes, you learn, and you grow with them. They are almost like classmates and you really bond with them. They become really important people to you.”
He added that it was a unique experience to see how talented everyone was and how great their voices were. “That inspires me to do better and be the best person of myself.”
Siskind also felt that the program helped him grow in a very social way and gain confidence in himself. It also taught him how to adapt to special circumstances. For example, after working so hard for 10 days, the opera performance was almost derailed by the weather, a thundering storm. The performance was suspended for nearly an hour but after the storm subsided, the students came back and finished the opera like any professional would do in an outdoor setting. “We had to do our best and had a great time doing it. It was important to get in that mindset and know that we had to do what was best.”
But he also found the courage to do things he never expected to do. “Being able to make fun of myself is something I thought I would never do. But it was awesome and a safe place to do it. At the end of the show, they sprayed shaving cream on and I just told them to put a lot on. Everyone backstage saw me getting covered in it and I think it was one of the most memorable moments. Getting confident and being in the moment.”
So what is the ultimate goal of the program and what is the program moving toward? McEndarfer notes that “the aim is providing diverse learning opportunities for the students regarding the contrasting historical context, musical features, and theatrical elements of the works. Overall, this teaches students to embrace the versatility performers need in the real world.”
He also noted that he wants to begin commissioning operas for youth. “So far, we have performed ‘Brundibár’ by Hans Krása in 2021, ‘The Odyssey’ by Ben Moore in 2022, and this year, ‘The Tinker of Tivoli, by Michael Jacobson’ (adapted from Rossini). In the future, we have exciting commissions and adaptations currently being composed. As everyone knows, the repertoire for youth operas is extremely limited, and we plan to help change that.”
He also noted that he wants the program to continue to grow. “In 2021, we produced our first staged opera, and the initiative has doubled in size annually since then. Though still in its infancy, we expect this program to produce world-class results and become a global leader in opera education.”
Next year the camp is moving from Vail to Austin and it will be known as the National Youth Opera Academy.
This is a place for young people who love music, a place to be seen, and I think I was seen. People are supporting me and the support system in this program is incredible,” Miria concludes