The opera had barely begun, and already the audience of elementary school kids was giggling with glee as the Three Little Pigs clowned around in their over-stuffed costumes, pig noses, and bright pink ears. Before long, the students laughed heartily as the pigs sang about Wolfgang Bigbad.
This intro to opera comes courtesy of Ellen Douglas Schlaefer and FBN (Fly By Night) Productions, a nonprofit opera company with two goals: to give students a taste of an often-misunderstood art and to provide a way for young singers from across the United States to break into their craft.
“There’s no tougher audience than a bunch of third-graders,” Schlaefer grins.
With an outstanding list of directing credentials, including productions for the Washington Opera and collaborations with Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, Schlaefer could have launched her “Opera For Kids” program anywhere in the country, but she chose her home state of South Carolina.
It began by chance. In 1993, Schlaefer got a call from her former chorus teacher at Columbia High School, asking if she’d consider presenting an opera at her alma mater.
“It was wonderful to watch the students,” Schlaefer recalls of that first performance. “You know how teenagers are. They’re acting so cool, and your stomach’s turning in knots because you think they’re not paying attention. But during the question-and-answer period, the questions were thoughtful. One thing led to another and I felt that there was a need to expose people to the one-on-one audience experience that’s not a movie or a rock concert.”
In 1994 she formed FBN, which has since staged about 200 performances for more than 74,000 students, mostly in rural and inner-city schools in the Carolinas and Georgia.
Study guides allow classmates to further explore the role of opera through lessons in history, art, and social studies. So students in grades 7-12 might discuss American history as portrayed in Porgy and Bess, as well as Shakespeare’s contributions to world literature in Romeo and Juliet.
Schlaefer, who lives on a farm in Chapin, S.C., (pop. 628) knows firsthand the importance of being exposed to the arts as a child. Early on, her parents took her to see the New York Philharmonic and The Metropolitan Opera. She says seeing Peter Pan live on television with Mary Martin, as well as watching the Gian Carlo Menotti opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, set the direction of her career.
Schlaefer loves to watch skeptical students open up and enjoy the show. “Seeing the connection thrills me more than anything else,” she says.
Sometimes it’s even therapeutic. During a performance at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, a profoundly disabled student kept time to the music on his chair tray, his first response to outside stimuli in more than two years.
A teacher from Carver Junior High in Spartanburg, S.C., told of how her students leaned from the second-story windows and sang to the cast as they were leaving.
“It made us want to see more,” wrote fourth-graders from Gardner Park Elementary in Gastonia, N.C., about the opera they saw. “You got two thumbs up.”
That feeling often is shared by the singers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who’ve been given a chance to hone their budding talents in six-week tours before landing contracts in such metropolitan areas as New York and Washington, D.C.
“One of the biggest things with a touring program like this … is that you really figure out what you need to do physically to keep your voice intact,” says Jennifer Seiger, a singer in Raleigh who has performed in three FBN operas.
Ian Derrer, a Matthews, N.C., singer who has entertained elementary students as Wolfgang Bigbad in the wildly popular Three Little Pigs, is now studying voice at Brooklyn College in New York.
“(Schlaefer) really is a mentor to young people,” he says. “It’s not just about singing. She makes you know what your responsibilities are.”