The Youngest Opera Fans
Through Opera for Kids, young people are introduced to the magic of live musical performances.
By Jackie Perrone
Asking school kids what they think of opera is a high-risk gambit. They’re not going to sugar-coat it. “Loud music in a foreign language!” “Stories nobody can understand!” “Old-time costumes!” Ellen Douglas Schlaefer, Founder and General Director of FBN Productions, Inc., which produces Opera for Kids among other opera related programs, has heard it all.
And then – she likes to report – her young professional singers open their voices to bring a children’s story, in English, with music and fun and laughter, to youngsters who may have never experienced a live musical performance. Pretty soon, laughter and applause and excitement replace the negativity, and new opera fans are born.
That’s Opera for Kids, the non-profit enterprise Ellen Schlaefer established in 1996 to bring live musical theater into schools and libraries for youngsters.
“Opera isn’t for everyone. I am not out to convert the whole world to opera. But, how are people going to know what they think of it, if they have never seen or heard it?
I want today’s children to experience opera so they can decide for themselves.
“And if you sit in on an Opera for Kids presentation, you’ll hear a lot of clapping and shouting for joy. That’s why we do it.”
This Columbia native has found her niche on a two-fold level, as Director of Opera Studies at the University of South Carolina School of Music, and as Founder and General Director of FBN Productions, Inc. which produces Opera for Kids among other opera-related programs. Under her tutelage, University students majoring in voice performance learn stagecraft at a professional level, and many go on to rewarding careers in music. Opera for Kids is an entirely separate enterprise, created by Ellen Schlaefer to foster talent while introducing children to this venerable art form.
“I dipped my toes into stage production as a student at Davidson College in North Carolina,” she says. “From there I went to The Catholic University in America in Washington DC for a MFA degree in directing. That was 1980. I’ve been at it ever since.”
“At it” encompasses an impressive career. Her first affiliation was with the Washington Opera (in D.C.). starting with props and quickly rising to directing. Her free-lance career as an opera director ranged over several decades, and an impressive list of shows. She has worked in most of the states and numerous locales abroad, with many companies and a lot of America’s greatest opera singers. Perhaps the fondest memories center on her 14 years of directing and producing at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico. “It’s a national treasure!” she exclaims. Opera performers from all over the world compete for the opportunity to appear at Santa Fe Opera, in an iconic theater which set new standards for performance arenas everywhere. If you’ve never attended Santa Fe Opera, put it on your Bucket List.
Twelve years ago, Ellen Schlaefer returned to her roots, bringing her expertise and talent to the University of South Carolina School of Music in the city where she grew up. She guides students in vocal performance to show their best onstage, and like teachers everywhere, finds her greatest satisfaction in their subsequent successes. “When they arrive here, some of these students have already performed in public and developed some stage presence in their home towns,” she says. “Others have never done that. It’s fun to see them blossom and develop their talent.”
Her students present two fully staged operas every year, as well as a series of one-act shorties. They do some directing and producing along with performance. Since her appointment to USC in 2004, Schlaefer’s department has staged more than 40 productions, most recently Sunday In The Park With George, and Later The Same Evening.
And then, there’s Opera for Kids. Now in its 23rd year, Ellen Schlaefer’s brain-child takes professional singers on the road in totally original productions to be presented at schools, libraries and municipal facilities – wherever sponsors can bring children together for this unique experience. Four singers and a pianist join the director and a techie, who live together for a month of touring. The performances showcase original talent in singing, composing and technology. Their first offering was a lively musical version of The Three Little Pigs, with lyricist John Davies telling the story to music by Mozart. (No stuffy formality here, and check out the goofy costumes!) This year, Opera for Kids is taking its stories-in-music to Columbia, Aiken County, Rock Hill and Florida.
The 2017 presentation: All According To Taste: The Three Bears’ Guide to Porridge Making. (Billed as “embracing our differences; we don’t all have to like our porridge prepared the same way to enjoy it.”)
Last summer, FBN Productions (parent of Opera for Kids) partnered for the seventh time with Opera at USC to present Carolina Opera Experience. In this program, students age 8 to 16 create the story and write the lyrics for their original production. The 2016 offering was entitled Take The Bee Train, featuring music from operatic classics and original music by Dr. John Valerio. COE is a yearly week-long “summer camp” program where students learn the art of props, make-up, costumes, scenery, and musical preparation, 5 th through 10th graders. These theatrical impresarios will never think of opera in the same way again!
This entrepreneur likes to point out that live performances offer something not to be found on television or in the movies. “There’s an incredible energy that flows over the footlights,” she says. “It’s a relationship between performer and audience that is just about indescribable. For many children, sitting quietly in church is the only place they have a chance to experience live music. Our audiences are not quiet or still! They let us know how we are affecting them.” So much for the stereotypes of opera as stilted, incomprehensible and/or boring. Kids don’t fall asleep when this group comes calling.
As most folks know, arts facilities everywhere struggle for funding. The non-profit Opera for Kids has depended on the generosity of its supporters, and now charges a minimal fee to the venues where they appear. They dream of a stable source of funding which would enable more and better shows, but for now, Opera for Kids just keeps on making it work for everyone. Founder and Director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer hopes it can continue, and so do the thousands of children and educators who have experienced it.
Ellen Douglas Schlaefer
Columbia, South Carolina
Dr. Edward and Mary Verner Schlaefer
AB Fine Arts, Davidson College, Davidson, NC;
MFA, Catholic University in America, Washington DC.
Cantey Outstanding Faculty Award, 2016, voted by the USC School of Music faculty “for exemplary dedication in the areas of teaching, performance, scholarship, or service.”
Wally Russell Professional Mentoring Award, 2017, from the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.
Founder, FBN Productions, Inc.
Founder, Opera for Kids