- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008

Many things fill the heads of 8- and 9-year-olds, from pop jingles to parental admonitions against talking to strangers. But opera?

“I still have the song ‘Toreador’ stuck in my head,” said Jaida Burroughs, one of roughly 4,000 D.C. public school students at the Kennedy Center this month to see “Carmen” as part of a cultural-education program with the Washington National Opera. “I had heard opera before, but it sounded pretty horrible. But now this is the best opera I’ve ever heard.”

The program, known as Opera Look-In, began in 1990, and this year featured Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” for its recognizable music and exotic Spanish setting.

“School systems have not been able to give kids exposure to good music the way they did generations ago,” said Michelle Krisel, a director for the opera company’s education-and-training program. We’re trying to fill the gap for families who wouldn’t otherwise have the money or the education to be exposed to classical music.”

The year-long program begins with teachers receiving study materials and workshop training to prepare the students for the performance.

“I probably would not be teaching opera to third- and fourth-graders had it not been for this partnership,” said Aisha Bowden, a music teacher at Thomson Elementary School. “It’s an invaluable resource here.”

Though many of the students were not overjoyed about going the opera house, their enthusiasm grew when they saw the majestic white building along the Potomac River, sank their feet into its signature red carpets and heard the overture begin.

“As soon as they go in and see the lights up above, they know they are in some special place. It really has an impact on them,” said Rebecca Dupin, whose daughter participated in the program this year.

Two performances were given, and shouts of “Bravo” and “Ole” went up after each scene of the 50-minute, G-rated version of the 1875 classic.

Ken Weiss, the opera company’s music administrator, led the children through a percussion presentation that included clapping to Spanish rhythms while dancer Lourdes Elias, in a bright red flamenco dress, played the castanets.

The students also were taken backstage for a look at the sets and costumes, along with tips on how to make their own rustic-looking stone walls out of cardboard and glue.

“The costumes and the different actors made it fun,” said Claire Latendresse, 9. “They’re different from everyday clothes. Usually, people don’t wear those folded, rufflely dresses.”

Some of the students said the highlight was making up their own lyrics to the spooky-sounding motif throughout “Carmen.”

Teaching artist Jane Phelan compared the motif to those in the musical scores of the “Star Wars” and “Jaws” movies.

“It sounds like trouble’s coming,” said Tiyahna Garrett, 8.

Others said they enjoyed the romantic songs and dance scenes - but didn’t like the ending.

“The worst part was when Carmen died,” said Alexander Belikovetskaya, 9.

The performances will be followed by artists visiting classrooms through the school year to help the students create and perform their own version of the opera.

Stephanie Wright, an assistant director of education and training for the opera company, told the students their version could include a different ending,perhaps featuring Carmen as a third- or fourth-grader.

“We want to make sure that students take ownership of the opera, because opera is a story, and all of our students have stories,” she said. “This is just another way for them to tell it.”

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