The moment Papageno entered the cafeteria at Briarwood Academy earlier this year, the 200 or so elementary school students who were gathered inside became intensely quiet. The beloved character from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozarts opera The Magic Flute used his funny hat, silly gestures and lovely baritone voice to command the rapt attention of even the youngest audience members.
Most of the children there didnt know it, but they were experiencing their very first opera, a musical genre often associated with vast concert halls, black tuxedoed conductors and Diva-esque sopranos on the verge of shattering glass goblets with their powerful voices.
Thanks to Opera Express, the educational touring company of Opera Carolina, Briarwood was among 56 regional elementary and middle schools (32 in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools) this season that experienced the 50-minute, youth-friendly production.
This particular performance is filled with colorful characters, expressive dialogue sung completely in English and a storyline about a magical musical instrument that was easy and entertaining for the children to follow.
Opera Express was established in 1971 as a means of bringing performance art and opera into rural communities throughout North Carolina and beyond. Today, the year-round, statewide touring company brings live opera into schools in North Carolina and South Carolina.
The company targets elementary and middle school students by staging age-appropriate productions, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, Pinocchio and The Billy Goats Gruff.
Performance art, and opera in particular, is anything but passive, said James Meena, Opera Carolinas general director and principal conductor. We know that early exposure to the arts enhances a childs creativity, critical thinking and independent learning. We are committed to reaching students through our educational programs, and most particularly those who may not typically have access to the performing arts.
Tiffany Cooper, a music teacher at Briarwood Academy, feels it is critical for her students to be holistic learners.
This type of exposure helps the kids with their other subjects, said Cooper. They learn new vocabulary, which helps with their literacy skills, and music teaches them about rhythm and beat, which helps with their counting and math. It is exciting to see them so engaged. They really enjoy these performances.
The program received some high-profile attention this year when the company received a lead gift to this years educational fundraising SPARK campaign from the Jimmie Johnson Foundation, founded by NASCAR Champion Jimmie Johnson and his wife Chandra. The foundation joined more than 15 other donors in support of Opera Express.
Chandra Johnson happened to be on hand at Briarwood and brought a special guest, daughter Genevieve Marie, 2, along for her very first opera performance.
She really enjoyed it, said a beaming Johnson. It is so important for our foundation to support the fine arts and play a part in exposing children to experiences such as these. Jimmie and I are thrilled to help with educational programs that connect kids and motivate them to learn and stay in school.
For the seven performers and a single accompanying pianist, the stage at Briarwood was almost as regal as the Metropolitan Opera.
I love performing for the children, said Jarvis Miller who played Papageno. You can see you are connecting by the look in their eyes. Its priceless.