Arts Beat: Unique summer camp offers kids operatic training

Jul 26, 2018

Every summer, a San Luis Obispo nonprofit puts on a kid's camp focused on an art form not usually considered a favorite of the under-18 set—opera. But as Carol Tangeman discovers, the region's professional opera company offers a whirlwind experience that gets local kids singing.

This coming fall, Opera SLO will present one of Mozart’s most famous operas, “The Magic Flute.” But first this summer, some ambitious children are creating their own version of the opera, during two weeks of Children’s Opera Camp in San Luis Obispo. The camp is held each summer for kids aged eight to 16.

“I think the fact that they get to do a full performance in two weeks is a big deal,” said Marissa Bloom, director of the Children’s Opera Camp, which is overseen by the nonprofit Opera SLO. “They’re very dedicated. They showed up a half hour early on the first day.”

“They learn vocal technique, choral works, and acting skills,” Bloom said. “Things that I actually work on with college-aged students. We take the entire story, and we take a lot of the music and sometimes we change the keys, sometimes they only sing part of the song, and instead of recitative we have them speaking dialog.”

‘Recitative’ is an opera term that means the dialog and narrative sections of an opera are sung in the rhythm of regular speech.

"The Magic Flute" is traditionally done in German, but the kids will sing and speak in English.

“Some of the kids were really excited,” Bloom said. “‘We get to do this in German?’ I said ‘No, I’m sorry, maybe if we had more time.’”

The story of “The Magic Flute” is a fantasy with a kidnapped princess, a prince sent to rescue her by her mother -- who turns out to be an evil queen, and there’s even a bird man in the plot...it’s a bit complex. Director Marissa Bloom uses examples from popular literature to help the kids understand the characters.

“You have to make it make sense to them; to connect it to something that they already know,” Bloom said. “They don’t know the story of 'The Magic Flute.' Most adults don’t even know the story and even if you’ve seen it, it’s hard to understand and remember. It’s a little weird sometimes, and they’re not sure who’s doing what, and there are slaves, and that’s weird for them. There is a man that is also half bird. But once they get into staging it starts to make sense to them.”

Besides performing, the kids are also involved in making the sets. On a recent weekday, some of the younger students were working at a crafts table, cutting paper to look like flames and drops of water.

“So, there’s these two lovers, and they have to go through trials to get married and they have to walk through fire and water,” a student explained.

Maddy Booker is busy stapling paper leaves to a giant paper tree; she is a former student who is back to help this year.

“I was a part of the camp for eight years as a performer, and this year I’ve returned as a volunteer counselor,” Booker said. “The kids made all of the leaves, so that is part of their craft time...they get to make little pieces that go on the set, which is really cool.”

And who gets to play the part of the Queen of the Night?

“I’m the Queen of the Night; the evil queen,” said Katie Rowan, now in her fourth year at Opera Camp. “Now that I’m older, I get the bigger parts, which I like.”

The 2018 Children’s Opera Camp will culminate in a free evening performance of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at 7 p.m. on July 27 at the United Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo. The regular opera normally clocks in at about three hours, but the Opera Camp is doing a one-hour version.

The KCBX News Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.