- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - Most of Melrose Elementary’s third-graders had experienced the opera only on TV. They knew opera music was loud, and acting and dancing were involved.

But they didn’t know loud until Susie Hellman Spatafora, a soprano opera singer, opened up.

Melrose’s cafeteria on Feb. 19 was filled with four classes of third-graders in awe of two singers and a pianist from St. Petersburg Opera Company. The children cackled, widened their eyes and shielded their ears from piercing high notes.

The school was the first stop of the company’s outreach tour to expose opera to students in the five struggling south St. Petersburg schools highlighted in the Tampa Bay Times’ recent Failure Factories series. The opera has scheduled a visit to Maximo Elementary this spring and hopes to perform at Lakewood, Campbell Park and Fairmount Park elementaries in the fall.

“A huge part of St. Pete Opera’s mission is to make opera accessible to everyone,” said Spatafora, who also serves as the company’s arts and development associate. “There’s sort of a stigma surrounding operas and who should attend operas.”

Moreover, “this is our future audience,” said Irene Athos, who chairs the company’s education outreach committee.

Spatafora and her performance partner, Luis Gonzalez, a baritone singer, gave a presentation full of examples of opera found in Bugs Bunny and Muppets cartoons and Pepsi commercials featuring Beyonce. They also delivered a crash course on opera basics such as performing without a microphone and how to sing high, low, fast and slow.

The performers brought their audience into the act, putting an oversized black jacket on 7-year-old De’Shaun Hayes so he could play a father who disapproved of his daughter marrying the man she loved. Spatafora sang the daughter’s role in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi.

She drew squeals and dropped jaws as she belted her solo, O mio babbino caro, hitting her high notes and begging her “father” in Italian for money for a wedding ring, as was the Renaissance custom.

“It was so fun the way she was singing ‘aaaaah!’ ” De’Shaun said. “I felt like I had to give her the ring and give her some money.”

Then the kids clapped along in rhythm to one of opera’s most famous pieces, Largo al factotum from Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, as sung by Gonzalez. They did the same to the aria Habanera from Georges Bizet’s Carmen.

“How did they learn different languages so quick, and how do they sing so loud?” 10-year-old Breanna Bouey wondered in awe.

Bobby Crawford, 9, liked the performance all around.

“I like the cartoons, I like the singing, I like when we (were) clapping,” he said.

Students also were invited to a free day of opera performance, demonstrations and participation open to the public from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 12 at Opera Central, 2145 First Ave. S in St. Petersburg.

Melrose music teacher Shaday Lackey said that, much to her surprise, students asked her after the performance to teach opera in class.

“They got a chance to experience orchestra music and present it in a way where they got to participate in it and not shy away from it because it’s not their music,” she said. “It gives them a chance to engage in music that’s 100 years old and gives them a chance to connect with it.”

Jeanne Reynolds, the Pinellas County School District’s pre K-12 performing arts specialist, explained that opera not only involves all of the arts, but also applies to school curriculum with its sense of story.

“It’s a great teaching tool,” she said.

As Gonzalez and Spatafora were packing up to head out, a student thanked them for the performance.

“I hope these kids would realize that (opera is) already in their culture, it’s not something foreign,” Gonzalez said.

Spatafora nodded. “And that’s something adults need to know, as well.”


Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), https://www.tampabay.com.

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