Who says opera fans must be older and well heeled? A whole new generation of school-aged enthusiasts is rising in southern Vermont, thanks to the efforts of Weston residents Lise Messier and Nan Nall. The two voice teachers and former professional singers founded the Opera Theatre of Weston in 1999 specifically to bring opera to kids and families. As Messier, 50, puts it candidly, “We want to cultivate the next audience for this ultimate art form.”
The OTW does so by staging one full-length opera, sung in English, each winter at the Weston Playhouse and the Paramount Theatre in Rutland, and bringing a condensed, one-hour version to area schools. Coproducers and -artistic directors Messier and Nall select only operas with roles for children, which limits OTW’s repertoire but ensures that kids see their peers in action alongside professional singers. This year’s selection — which was also 2002’s — is Mozart’s amusing, fairytale-like The Magic Flute.
As this issue goes to print, 2400 school children have witnessed Prince Tamino’s quest to win beautiful Tamina using a magic flute, a gift from the formidable Queen of the Night. They may even have laughed at the antics of Papageno and his “18-years-and-2-minutes-old” girlfriend Papagena, or recognized the foursome’s helpers, three spirits sung by area kids, including 11-year-old Silas Hamilton of Shrewsbury. Those five school performances sold out last June, Messier says.
Though geared toward families, OTW’s theater productions are hardly amateur. No recorded orchestral music here; instead, a 12-member orchestra, drawn mostly from the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, will play under the baton of Karen Keltner, the San Diego Opera’s resident conductor. Many of the professional singers studied voice with Nall or Messier — both women taught at Middlebury College for 15 years and continue to teach in Weston. Messier’s former student, Rutland-born Katherine Kaplan, will sing the Queen of the Night.
Using professionals is a necessity, says Messier, given the three-week rehearsal schedule. And, she adds, “if [the children] don’t have a good experience, they don’t come back.”
Licia Gambino Hamilton believes the relationship her son Silas has developed with the professional singers is “worth the whole thing right there.” “The flip side of it is,” she adds with a chuckle, “he has to do a lot of waiting. So, it has to be worth it for him. Because he’s an active, 11-year-old boy, you know?”
School audiences were prepped by their teachers using workbooks Messier and Nall provided, and with class visits from the choreographer, Ashley Hensel-Browning of Chester. Did they get to hear the Queen of the Night’s famous aria, “Der Hölle Rache” (“The vengeance of Hell”), with its jaw-dropping high F? Yes, but as an introduction to the basics, Messier admits. “We have them identify high notes and low notes. It’s so out of their realm; they’re not used to hearing that range of voice.”
After a performance, the two founders pore over hundreds of post-opera questionnaires. “We get the cutest things,” says Messier. “One boy wrote, ‘It wasn’t as annoying as I thought it would be!’”
Nall, who describes herself as “way, way old” — she traveled to Vietnam “just after Tet” to stage an opera for kids at the Saigon Conservatory — says the OTW creates new converts every year. “For some, it’s just an amazing experience. They’ve never seen such a beautiful thing in their lives. And for some of them, it’s the only beautiful thing in their lives.”