Who Wants to Be an Opera Star – To Present a Show for Children, Opera Idaho Adapted the Work of Another Opera Company

By Greg Waxberg
Courtesy of Opera Idaho

Opera Idaho gave new meaning to the phrase “from stage to screen” when sharing a children’s show with Idaho schools during the pandemic. During April and May, they offered “Who Wants To Be An Opera Star?” as a free 30-minute online video for children in K-6.

It was adapted from the original 40-minute stage version created by Utah Opera as part of its education programming.

“We wanted to create a program that taught elements of the art form,” said Paula Fowler, Director of Education at Utah Opera “We also find that children engage when the performers actually talk to them. Additionally, we like sharing actual music from the world’s great composers as we share a variety of scenes.”

Notably, this program of scenes and dialogue takes the form of a game show starring four singers from a young artist program; one singer serves as host and three others appear as contestants.

“We thought a game show provided a great frame for a program that gradually reveals and demonstrates elements of classical singing, drama, and opera,” Fowler said. “Any kind of competition between players is also a framework with which children are acquainted, so there is a blend of the familiar and the new that makes it easier for them to learn about the new.”

The title blends the concepts of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “American Idol” because elements of both of those shows are represented here—quiz questions in the spirt of “Millionaire” and a singing competition in the spirit of “American Idol.” Overall, the show introduces children to opera terms, voice types, and the concepts of aria, duet, trio, and quartet. Except for the final quartet set to music from Lehár’s “The Merry Widow,” the script provides flexibility to customize the music selections based on the singers’ repertoire.

Wanting to be an Opera Star

Opera Idaho learned about “Who Wants To Be An Opera Star?” when its Artistic Administrator, Nik Dumas, who also oversees the company’s Emerging Artists Program, visited Utah Opera about three years ago. While there for a performance of “The Little Prince,” he met with the company’s administrators about their resident artist program, and Fowler provided information about this children’s show.

Dumas immediately liked it as “a good, basic introduction to opera and opera terms for elementary school students.” The major change was the adaptation from the stage version, which includes interaction with the audience of children as well as a Q&A, to online viewing.

“We had to remove some of the interaction—instead of talking to kids, the singers are talking to a camera. And we added sound effects in place of an audience,” said Fernando Menéndez, Opera Idaho’s Marketing and Education Manager.

Dumas and Menéndez co-directed with an eye toward fun and engagement, and Fowler is complimentary of their efforts, saying, “Opera Idaho did nice work offering the show without an audience. It’s perfect to use some canned laughter and recorded kids’ voices.”

The four singers talking to a camera and having fun in Opera Idaho’s version are from Boise and are members of Opera Idaho’s Resident Company: soprano Jena Carpenter, tenor Dr. Andrew Peck, mezzo-soprano Naomi Spinelli, and baritone David Le, accompanied on piano by Opera Idaho Staff Accompanist Betsi Hodges. Dumas explained the show’s musical needs to the four singers, who suggested arias and excerpts for him to choose from.

“While most of the roles we perform are highly dependent on our delivery—and, thereby, our connection to the audience—providing a ‘successful’ show for children, and a virtual one at that, really needed to be thought out,” said Carpenter, who carefully reviewed her repertoire for pieces that would elicit reactions called for by the script. She wanted to cover a range of languages, plus hit on emotional intrigue in her solo aria (the Jewel Song from Gounod’s “Faust”).

“I wanted to portray a jubilant mood to pull the kids into our virtual show because this selection is the first time the kids hear a full work. I wanted them to be engaged from the beginning and thought a happy, euphoric selection would draw them in more than an introspective, melancholy aria.”

In addition to singing, Peck teaches band, choir, and orchestra, as well as academic music courses, at Renaissance High School in Meridian, ID. He appreciates “the show’s efforts to instruct and educate the students on new Italian words like ‘bravo’ or ‘soprano.’ I also loved the flexibility that the show afforded to explore my own character and just ‘go with it.’”

All About the Kids

So, how have children reacted to their virtual introduction to opera According to a couple of teachers, students love the show.

“Every grade thought it was funny,” said Jennifer Sanders, Music Teacher and Choir Director for the Kuna School District, who likes what the show teaches and is grateful for the video.

The most common feedback she received: “I like that we learned about the different voices”; “I liked hearing them sing alone and with others”; and “I liked hearing their voices and seeing them move their arms and act while singing.”

Brenda Winkle, Elementary Music Specialist and Choir Director for the Boise School District, related that the students loved it so much, they asked to watch a little bit each day.

“Fun is the main vehicle for kids this age to appreciate opera—if they laugh at something, they remember how much they enjoyed it,” she said. “This is absolutely sparking interest in addition to removing the barrier to opera. Because this is age-appropriate and appreciated by the age group, the show is a big win. It is teaching them the terminology in a way that’s fun and engaging in addition to exposing them to the art. It makes opera feel approachable. So many operas aren’t ‘kid-friendly,’ so shows like this are really important in teaching kids to love opera at a young age.”

And that is also one of Opera Idaho’s biggest takeaways from presenting children’s operas over the years.

“Operas that are shortened and made ‘school-friendly’ are sometimes not exciting enough to keep the attention of very young students,” Menéndez said. “Young children tend to respond better to works that are fast-paced and funny—written with them in mind.”

Dumas has also observed the impact of “a good share of humor sprinkled throughout, and participation.”

Through online access, Opera Idaho has seen this video of “Who Wants To Be An Opera Star?” reach more schools than they can visit. The company may continue digital outreach when it returns to bringing live operas to schools.


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