Tiana Holden was thrilled at Tuesday evening's dress rehearsal of Verdi's Aida, the classic tale of love and betrayal that opens tonight at the Lyric Opera House. During the intermission, she raved about the voices of Italian soprano Tiziana Caruso, who sang the title role, and her leading man, tenor Antonello Palombi. "It was amazing how they put so much expression into their singing," she bubbled.
Tiana is a fifth-grader at Cross Country Elementary School in Baltimore. She may not start writing notes for Opera News next week, but given her enthusiasm, it's probably safe to say the 10-year-old may already be hooked on opera.
That was exactly what the Baltimore Opera Company had in mind when it invited nearly 1,000 local elementary, middle and high school students to last week's rehearsal. They watched Verdi's late masterpiece straight through from beginning to end, just as they would at a regular performance. As for understanding the Italian libretto, no problemo, as the kids would say: A translation scrolled above the stage.
Opera dress rehearsals are usually occasions for cast members to show off their skills to family and friends. But for the past three years, the BOC's weeknight dress rehearsals also have been part of an innovative outreach program called Opera in the Curriculum. It's all about coaxing impressionable young people to appreciate this most extravagant art so they'll come back as adults.
"We created Opera in the Curriculum to reach out to many different schools because we've found it makes a big difference if kids know something about the historical and political context of the operas and the origins of the stories," says BOC director Michael Harrison. "If you give them that, they usually want to come again."
About 20 schools were represented in the audience at the performance Tiana saw. This writer wandering the crowded lobby during intermission couldn't find a single kid who looked bored. "It's cool to hear them even though they're singing in a foreign language," said Heather Drake, a ninth-grader at Fallston High School who was on her first trip to the opera. Cultural institutions such as opera companies, symphony orchestras, museums and theaters have caught on that tomorrow's audiences will come from those who learned to love the arts as youngsters. They've seen budget cuts slash art and music instruction at many schools, and realize that if they don't light that candle, maybe no one will. So programs such as Opera in the Curriculum are a kind of insurance policy to keep nurturing new audiences.
But exposing young people to opera isn't just about the joys of art appreciation. Art and music - both powerful forms of nonverbal communication - play key roles in shaping minds and attitudes. Infants respond to color and pattern, melody and rhythm, the elements that build neural pathways in babies' brains. The arts also enhance the development of social skills such as attentiveness, concentration and self-discipline. (You'd think a bunch of middle-school kids would riot if forced to attend an opera, but last week you could hear a pin drop.)
The arts also knit our bonds of community in shared purpose. Kids came from all over the city and surrounding counties to see Aida, a veritable rainbow of races, social classes and cultures. And they got along just fine. Maybe kids today generally take diversity more in stride than their parents. But if so, might it not be because they've also grown up sharing more experiences of the arts?
America is a multicultural nation whose art, literature and music are woven from the strands of a hundred different heritages, each deserving of respect. Last year, the opera put on Puccini's Madama Butterfly, set in Japan. This spring, it presents Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, set in South Carolina. And Aida is set in ancient Egypt.
Where they all come together is in the imaginations of the young people who experience them, share the joys and sorrows of their characters and dream of distant peoples and places suddenly made real.