- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

Members of the Wolf Trap Opera Company used to spend their rehearsal time shuttling from one makeshift venue to the next, dependent on the whims of whatever church or school let them in. They never knew if a space would stay available or if a church bake sale might shut them out.

The opera company no longer leads such an itinerant life, nor do Wolf Trap’s other educational components.

The new Wolf Trap Center for Education, a 54,000-plus-square-foot building near the Barns of Wolf Trap, promises more than just much-needed rehearsal space. It seeks to extend the educational outreach of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

The new center, which debuted in May, offers a growing digital resource library for arts educators and a trio of rehearsal rooms that can duplicate the sounds a performer will hear onstage. The rooms offer echolike effects that mimic the reverb a concert hall or open stage venue might produce.

The center, an aesthetic complement to much of Wolf Trap’s buildings, is adjacent to the Barns in Vienna. It features an education hall that can be divided into four separate spaces for rehearsals or workshop sessions and a multimedia learning center. For now, the new spaces aren’t available for rent by outside groups, but a Wolf Trap spokeswoman says that likely will change in the months to come. A 100-seat lecture hall provides space for distance-learning sessions.

Kim Witman, director of the Wolf Trap Opera Company, says the organization’s opera work has gained a considerable boost with the new center.

Ms. Witman says the education center has several rooms ready-made for rehearsals. One bears a reproduction of the actual stage at the Barns of Wolf Trap on the floor, allowing performers to get a sense of where they should stand during performances.

The opera program, which has produced a number of talented graduates, including mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, accepts students mostly in their mid- to late 20s who are ready for one last burst of training before entering the professional realm.

Wolf Trap’s young opera players don’t act as supernumeraries — opera production extras — during programs. They are handed critical roles, allowing them to learn on the fly.

“The general philosophy has been as such for 20 years,” Ms. Witman says of the 32-year-old opera company.

The opera rehearsals go on for three weeks, more like the real time window for an opera production than the longer time a typical conservatory usually allows, Ms. Witman says.

Wolf Trap’s educational efforts focus, in part, on young children. The organization’s Institute for Early Learning uses creative methods, such as drumming out syllables to teach children how to pronounce certain words, to draw out students and increase their communication skills.

Kyra Pincheira, Wolf Trap’s assistant director of national, international and Internet education programs, says such efforts typically are geared toward at-risk children.

Wolf Trap reaches more than 50,000 children a year, Miss Pincheira says.

In the past, Wolf Trap’s outreach efforts were restricted to visiting area schools. Now students and teachers can come to the center for lessons and workshops.

The space also soon will pave the way for affordable drama classes for local students.

“Parents want to know if we have any summer programs in the arts,” she says.

Terrence D. Jones, president and chief executive of the Wolf Trap Foundation, says some of the center’s potential, including regular distance-learning classes and a fully functional Web site featuring downloadable materials for teachers, will be introduced as funding permits.

Mr. Jones envisions the Web-based services offering online chats where teachers can swap advice on educational methods.

The nonprofit may have a solid reputation for its arts programming, but money still plays a factor in how much it can offer the community.

“We put the infrastructure in the building,” Mr. Jones says. “When the funding is in place, things like distance learning … it won’t take long once the funding is in place.”

The distance-learning component already has been applied on a limited basis through a cultural exchange with Greece. In May, Wolf Trap participated in a distance-learning program featuring three teaching artists and two Wolf Trap staffers who conducted training sessions within a weeklong education conference for kindergarten teachers in Athens.

The new education center also is a repository for Wolf Trap’s “Face of America” program. The annual shows highlight the beauty — and historical significance — of the national parks.

This year’s program, to be held Sept. 6, celebrates the power of flight through the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park, the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk and the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

Mr. Jones says the programs are meant to be entertaining but also contain lessons pertinent to history, geography and culture.

Wolf Trap also offers direct funding to a handful of local educators each year, he says. Last year, Wolf Trap gave a Virginia teacher a hand with his Shakespeare lessons. The scholarship helped the teacher stage a small Shakespeare production to give students a hands-on lesson about the bard.

Teacher Betsy Knab, a preschool teacher at Mosby Woods Elementary School in Fairfax, says her interactions with Wolf Trap over the years have transformed the way she teaches.

“It helps my lessons come alive,” Mrs. Knab says.

Having artists visit her school really builds the children’s language skills, says Mrs. Knab, whose students hail from foreign lands and speak little English.

“The children become as fluent as you or I at the end of the school year,” she says. “It’s amazing; more learning goes on in the preschool years than any other time in your life.”

She says one of the Wolf Trap performers who has visited her classroom is West African artist Kofi, who taught her students chants from his native Ghana.

“It helps us open our minds,” she says. “They love the music … they really get into the beat and the dancing.

“A few props, a little music and the kids’ imagination, and you can transform a classroom. That’s what the artists have taught us,” she says.

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