Storybook Opera for the Holidays

This week's blog is written by Sandy Campbell, one of HGOco's Storybook Opera performers.

I love storytelling. That’s why Storybook Opera is a great fit for me. It just seems natural to use something familiar such as a book, to introduce something unfamiliar like opera. I love the way the children gather around to listen.

I try to create a warm, cozy environment, just as a wonderful librarian would.

We first talk about what opera is and what opera singing is like. Most realize it isn’t the kind of singing you typically hear on the radio. Most do not know that opera is a story, and that opera singers must train to perform just as athletes train for their careers. During these initial moments, I’m working to win their interest. Once I’ve connected with the children, the real fun begins. With the help of well written and “performable” books, I tell and sing a story. At the end of the performance, I take a few questions. They usually want to know how I sing like that, and can I break glass.

I always save the best for last: getting the children involved. After a 10 second voice lesson (HILARIOUS), we play the opera talk game. I “sing” them a question, and they must “sing” back their answer. In November, we “sang” about Thanksgiving dinner. We had a blast, making each other hungry. What will I be asking in December? Of course the most important thing on their minds is what Santa will be leaving under their tree. Wouldn’t you like to be a little fly on the wall for that one? As our time comes to a close and they must go back to their classes, the room is still buzzing with questions and demonstrations of their vocal abilities. I’m all aglow, realizing I’ve played a part in building opera audiences of the future and I am honored.

Song of Houston at Pat Neff Elementary School

Jinett Martinez is a second-grade teacher at Neff Elementary School, in the Sharpstown district, and is working with HGOco as part of a year-long school-wide Song of Houston collaboration. The project involves every student and staff member, some parents and community members as well.

Everyone is learning how to conduct oral history interviews and from those interviews, each class is creating an artistic project. The second grade students and teachers are working, under the auspices of HGOco’s Song of Houston, with FotoFest’s Literacy Through Photography (LTP) program.

Here’s how Ms. Martinez described the work that they’ve already been doing as part of the LTP curriculum:

My students are excited to be writing about their life stories as part of our year-long collaboration! Thus far, my bilingual second-grade class has written about their seven or eight years of their lives in English.

From these writings they created a timeline from when they were born till now, highlighting the important events of their lives. They presented their timelines to the class.

Donna’s Timeline

I was born in August 2001 at Bentaub Hospital.
2002 I learned to walk and stopped using pampers.
2003 I ate by myself.

Jose’s Timeline

2000 I was in my mom's tummy.
2001 I was born.
2002 My first Halloween.
2003 I learned to talk in Spanish.

They did another writing project in class dreaming about what they would like to be when they grow up. They read their stories in front of the class as an oral presentation in English. They also took their individual pictures in Mrs. Stowes’ computer lab.

Here’s some of the great work that they’ve done:

My Dream

My name is Domingo.
I am eight years old.
I am a second grader at Neff Elementary.
My favorite subjects are math and science.
I want to go to Sharpstown Middle School to learn music and arquitect.
I want to go to Bellaire High School to do sports.
Then I want to go to college to do Art and math.
I want to be a teacher to teach math and art.

My Dream

My name is Ignacio.
My favorite class is P.E. or physical education.
I also like to read and learn a lot.
I want to go to Pin Oaks for languages.
Then I want to go to the Visual Arts High School.
Finally I want to go to University of Houston to be a cartoon artist.

We are very fortunate to be part of this project are looking forward to the middle and final outcome on May 15, 2009 when all of our students’ creative projects will be displayed or performed at Hooray for Neff day!

High School Voice Studio

Ryan Cole, a student at HSPVA and a member of the High School Voice Studio (HSVS) wrote a blog about his experience in the studio.

I have experienced so much more than I ever could have imagined in the High School Voice Studio. From the audition at the end of the school year last year to preparing for college auditions now, the journey has been better than I expected.

Receiving assistance while preparing for college is one of the best, and least advertised, parts of the studio. As a high school senior, I spend a lot of time looking at colleges and wondering how to make the right decisions. The HSVS leaders have given me tremendous guidance and shown me what to look for in a school.

As a member of the studio, I also receive a year of weekly voice lessons- all for free! I have made many improvements in a short period of time that simply weren't possible without having a teacher's guidance on a regular basis. My teacher, Dr. Tracy Satterfield, has not only helped fix my vocal issues, but also helped me be aware of when an issue is present and the difference I feel after I correct it. She has also given me priceless assistance with selection of repertoire for auditions and recitals. Finding a song that's age-appropriate and right for a singer’s voice is very challenging if you don't know what you're doing. To be exposed to that level of expertise in high school will only help build my vocal career on a solid foundation.

Another great part of the program is the opportunity to see every mainstage opera at HGO. I first came to a rehearsal of Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, and I loved being able to see a real rehearsal of an opera. It was amazing to see how combining orchestra, soloists, adult chorus, and children’s chorus can be quite a challenge. I also get to see the final dress rehearsal of each show, where the problems from the previous rehearsal are nonexistent.

I have also experienced some life changing master classes in the High School Voice Studio. I had the honor of singing for Dr. Stephen King of Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. He spoke about learning new music and a wonderful concept of practicing: enjoy the journey and don't be obsessed about the destination. His attention to detail and language has forever changed my perspective on language and diction. The last master class I attended was taught by the world-renowned Ana María Martínez. She has a contagious passion for the art of singing. She told a story about projection of the voice that really touched me. She said that you must not force your voice to be louder but allow it to go beyond the back of the house. When she is on stage, she is singing to the people in the very back who may not be able to afford better seats or seats to any other opera the rest of the season. She sings to the people who really sacrifice to be there. She sings to the people who have a true love for opera. She sings to the people who are having a hard day, week, or even life. She believes that singing is not only a craft, but a service to all the people who can benefit from forgetting about there worries for as long the curtain is up.

Now I have begun preparing for my college auditions and the HSVS recital in January. I am so excited to be able to sing on the recital with a new and improved technique, sound, and concept of singing. Ms. Martínez helped us all realize that we don’t just sing on stage, we take people out of their world and into the story. She is the kind of performer I strive to be.

Auditions for next year's HSVS will be posted online in February. Auditions are open to Juniors in High School who are interested in pursuing a degree in music.

Fall Teacher Workshops at HGOco

As the new Education Coordinator of HGOco, I am now in charge of the Teacher Workshops, offered on the night of each dress rehearsal of the main stage productions. We offered a questionnaire at the Cav/Pag to get a sense of what the teachers wanted to learn, and were pleased to find their thirst of knowledge exceeds our own!

The first Teacher Workshops were a hit. Cavalleria Rusticana/ Pagilacci was led by Colin Ure and Sandra Bernhard. The teachers began with a pasta meal (in honor of the Italian opera), followed by a presentation on the two operas. After the presentation, Ms. Bernhard led the teachers in a quick fine arts integration exercise. They were given three exercises based on Pagliacci, and were asked to come up with three for Cavalleria. Mary Neely Stevens, who teaches at Carter Academy for the Performing Arts, emailed me the following exercises.

1. "Intermezzo--What Comes Next?" An intermezzo is an orchestral movement performed between the acts of an opera. The music of the intermezzo reflects on the mood and the music of the previous act, as well as, foretells the action about to happen. Select a familiar story, such as "Cinderella," and add instrumental intermezzi between segments of the story. Use melodic and percussive instruments to create the appropriate mood.

2. There are five main characters in the opera "Cavalleria Rusticana"--a mother, her son, his wife, a woman and her husband. The conflict in this opera is one of jealousy. Develop five different characters for each of the following five words: anger, trust, family, rumor and love. Create a story with a conflict of jealousy. Unlike the opera, your conflict will have a resolution--a happy ending.

3. "Cavalleria Rusticana" is set in a small village during Eastertide. Select a familiar story that is also set in a small village, such as "Cinderella." Change the setting to a big city at the 4th of July. How would the scenery be altered? What changes would you make to the costumes? What type of music would reflect the sights and sounds of the city? Are there special events or customs on the 4th of July?

Thank you Ms. Stevens! What a wonderful way to bring opera into the classroom.

This week we hosted the Much Ado About Nothing (Beatrice & Benedict) Teacher Workshop, and Ms. Bernhard was joined by Rob Kimbro from the Alley Theatre. They held a wonderful conversation about directing Shakespeare, and the ties between the theatre and music in his works. After that, each table of teachers had to take a Shakespeare play and create a cast list for their Shakespeare-based opera. We had some serious sopranos and tricky tenors in Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice.

The next Teacher Workshops are in January for Chorus! and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Check our Teacher Workshop page on the HGO website for more information.

Thank you,


Opera to Go! at Miller Outdoor Theatre

This week an Opera to Go! cast member, Michael Walsh, shares his experience rehearsing Strega Nona, the fall touring show which opened last week at Miller Outdoor Theatre.

The rehearsal process for Strega Nona was as fun as it was intensive. Unfortunately, our very first rehearsal was canceled due to Hurricane Ike. We normally rehearse at the Central campus of Houston Community College, but for the first week of rehearsals, the power was still out there due to the storm. I was a little worried about the show coming together since we were already on a tight schedule, but fortunately everyone was prepared and we were able to stage and rehearse the show in just five days! Our first two rehearsals were held at HGO and focused solely on the music. I had a music coaching with our music director, Kade Smith, and with our pianist, Youngha Guk, where we just worked on my part. I always get nervous before my first music rehearsal for a show because I want to make a good impression. Luckily, things went smoothly. We just established tempos, worked on some diction issues, and made sure I was meticulously following what was on the printed page of the score. It was really fun to sing through Strega Nona for the first time with everyone in the cast, since I was unfamiliar with the other character’s music. There are some really tricky ensemble moments in this show, but with each rehearsal, the ensembles got better and better. After another full day of music rehearsals, we met with our stage director, Chuck Winkler, at HCC (which finally had power!). We were able to get the show staged in two days.

Staging is always like piecing together a puzzle. It’s fun, but it takes a lot of concentration. On our second day of staging, we ended the day by heading to the HGO costume warehouse and picking out our costumes for the show. Chuck had pulled several costumes for each of us to try on, and whatever fit and looked the best was the winner. On our last day of rehearsal everyone was excited and anxious. Our first run-through was pretty rough, but after notes from our director and talking through the more difficult stage traffic moments (like when the pasta takes over the town and ties us up in knots), we had a better handle on how things needed to go to make the show cleaner and clearer. Our final dress went much better, but there were still some issues that needed ironed out.

On opening day, we all arrived early and did a quick walk through of the show to refresh everyone’s minds. After our first performance at Miller Outdoor Theater, I was relieved because I think we pulled it off! I feel very proud to be a part of this production with Opera to Go! My fellow cast members are so talented and we had so much fun goofing around while putting this opera together. My favorite part of performing Strega Nona at Miller is that I can directly see the audience. I can see the smiles across their faces during the show. Seeing the audience and knowing that I’ve helped create that happiness and joy in their lives just makes all of my hard work worthwhile!

The Learning Process

Hannah Celeste Lu, our soprano for Opera to Go!'s fall show, Strega Nona, describes below her process for learning a show.

I feel very blessed to have a job that allows me to combine two of my favorite things: singing and children. Being a singer with Opera to Go! is my dream job. I get to work with fun and talented musicians, and I am singing in schools three days a week. One of the joys of being an artist is making a character "come to life" and relating to the children. That usually involves making everything onstage larger than life. With the Opera to Go! schedule we can perform each show close to 80 times. Since we get to know a show so well, I am always very excited when we get to start the rehearsal process for a new production. I'm usually ready for a change. I am eager to start my third season with a new show for me, Strega Nona, by Mary Carol Warwick and Mary Ann Pendino.

"The process for learning an Opera to Go! show is always fun. When I get my score, I read through the whole libretto so I know what the show is about. I don't even look at the music at this point. I just want a feel for the story and the characters. In Strega Nona, my character is Francesca Puttanesca. I look at how she interacts with the other characters and I look for clues as to "who she is" and how I can make her interesting to my audience. This character study usually develops more as I find out what our director, Chuck Winkler, wants me to do with the character. Even after we get the show up and running, my characters tend to change as I understand them more. Our shows are mostly in English, but sometimes we get to expose the children to different languages like Spanish or in this case, Italian. The majority of this show is in English, but I notice that I have several phrases that I speak in Italian. There are a few words that I don't know, so I run to my trusty Italian dictionary. Once I've translated the unknown words, I'm ready to move on.
"After reading the score I highlight my part and mark sections that I think look tricky. Finally, I go up to my keyboard and start playing through the opera slowly. I don't sing at this point, I just look and listen. I count the beats out loud so that I don't mess up and so I can figure out where the notes go. I like playing my part because as a former pianist, I feel like the music gets into my body best that way and then I just "know" it. Having my fingers move with the notes helps me sing the correct notes. I take small sections of the opera each day and pull it apart this way, playing through it and then singing as I play. As I keep reviewing different sections I find that what I'm learning begins to stick. For Strega Nona, we were given a computer-generated recording of the music. I put that on my iPod and listen as I look through the opera and lightly sing. This is my way of checking to see if I'm getting it all right. As I get more comfortable with the notes I use the recording as my accompaniment and am able to sing out more. The real test comes when I meet with our music director, Kade Smith, for our first coaching.

"September 17th was my first day of rehearsal. I had an hour coaching with Kade Smith and our pianist Youngha Guk at 11:00. I found out that I know my music well. I felt quite comfortable with the Italian and with the music. I'm not quite sure how I want to say some of my dialogue yet, but I know that will come when we meet with Chuck about characters. At 2:00 the whole cast met for our first sing-through of the show. Kade gave us a few notes and rehearsed a few ensemble numbers and then our day was done. We met again on Friday for a full 9-4 day of just musical rehearsal. This week Chuck stages the show. It is always fun to hear it in the beginning and then see it grow as we get more comfortable and then eventually put it all together with movement, sets, and costumes. We can put staging together in about 2-3 days. We then begin running the show until we feel we are ready for our first performance. The whole rehearsal process with the Opera to Go! group together is usually no longer than two three-day weeks. It's a fast process, but we get comfortable with a show very quickly as we perform it many times. No performance is alike, but that's what I love. I love the hard work and then the fun that comes from performing for children and seeing their faces light up as they are exposed to such a uniquely beautiful and exciting art form. May they be inspired.

You can come see Strega Nona at the Miller Outdoor Theatre Sept. 29 to Oct. 3 at 11:00 AM daily.

First Voice Lessons

This week, we hear from High School Voice Studio soprano, Susannah Bayliss, about her first voice lesson in the Studio.

"I think the first voice lesson you take with any new person is rather scary. You don't know quite what to expect, or if they will even like you. First impressions always seem so critical. As I meandered through the halls of St. Peter's church for my first voice lesson with Karen Reeves, lost and trying desperately to find an open door and the choir room simultaneously, Ms. Reeves came upon me in the sanctuary. Her open and easy demeanor immediately put me at ease, and thus started my first voice lesson with the HGO High School Voice Studio. Every singer has their own issues that they must work with, and one of mine is not breathing low enough- similar to how people breathe when they sleep. Ms. Reeves had me lie down on the floor while she pressed her hands against my stomach, and I tried to visualize filling my stomach with air.

"Soon the summer ended, and after I became better acquainted with Ms. Reeves she placed me with one of the High School Voice Studio's teachers and HGO Studio alum, Alicia Gianni. Lessons with Ms. Gianni are held at HGO, so we work in a much larger room. In our first lesson she tried to make me fill the room with sound, helping me get over my insecurities about being the loudest singer in the room (which can often be the case).

"When I think of the High School Voice Studio I think mostly of responsibility. We have a responsibility to the music and to ourselves to do the best we possibly can. This opportunity is too great for us not to be responsible with it. I think this year will be rewarding to all of us involved."

High School Voice Studio

As the year is about to start, I thought it would be nice to hear from one of the High School Voice Studio members, and see what her expectations were for the year. Martha Patton agreed to write this week's blog, and share with you what her expectations and feelings are for the new year.

"I feel excited and privileged to be in the HGO High School Voice Studio! I think it is going to be one of the highlights of my senior year of high school. Here are some of the things I am excited about:

  • Driving downtown! This is big for me because I have not been driving that long. Other commitments kind of got in the way of getting my driver’s license. As a matter of fact, several of us in the Studio are seriously challenged with driving. We kind of stall on things that don’t relate to music.

  • Getting to hang out with the other students in the Studio. They all have different personalities, but are so much fun. It will be great to have a group of friends who are interested in opera.

  • Working on my new art songs and arias that my HGO voice teacher, Dr. Tracy Satterfield, picked out for me, at my weekly voice lesson. I love them all – but I know some of them will be challenging. It is going to be fun to hear everyone else’s songs at our monthly master classes.

  • Hanging out at HGO! We will get an access card that will allow us to go into the catacombs and labyrinths of the Wortham Center. I can’t wait to go behind the scenes during rehearsals.

  • The operas! I am so looking forward to Pagliacci in October. Watch this Youtube clip of Vesti La Giubba that I found last year, and you will get excited about it, too.
The people of HGO. They are so nice! From the opera singers to the backstage crew – everyone is friendly. They can laugh at themselves, and they are nice to children, as I learned when I was in the children’s chorus of Hansel and Gretel."

Martha Patton, High School Voice Studio member

An August Memory

As we get ready to begin a brand new year at Houston Grand Opera, I can't help but wonder what is in store for us at HGOco. August is already such a strange time of the year: by definition, it should be a time of grandeur, but rarely does it seem to be so. Following the academic calendar, I associate August with new beginnings. For me it has become a time of expectation and planning; a time when I prepare for the fall Opera to Go! show and make sure I am ready to receive the influx of ticket orders for High School Night at the Opera. I remember when I myself was in high school; I was excited about these new beginnings because I loved to get my new school supplies and find out what books we would be reading for the year. Of course I would be nervous for the first day of school, but those nerves were soon replaced by an eagerness to find out what my classmates had done for the summer.

August holds another association for me, one that definitely matches this venerable month's origin. When I feel the stifling heat of an August day in Houston, I recall the time I spent mowing our lawn in the dry heat of our Oklahoma summers. I was positive our yard had the fastest-growing lawn on the block, and I had to mow it every Saturday. (I was also sure that this was a torture devised by my father to keep me from enjoying my weekend, but in reality it was just a normal chore for a teenage boy.) The one solace I had while I had to (endlessly) push the lawn mower up and down our backyard hill was listening to the Saturday matinee opera broadcasts on the local radio. August was the month when the Bayreuth Festival was broadcast, and I relished in this grandiose music that I didn't know much about. It took countless hours in the listening library at college to finally understand what they were singing about, but by that time I was already hooked. Even though I may not list a single Wagner opera in my top five, I will never miss a chance to see one of these masterpieces. And every summer, when August rolls around, I hear the beginnings of a drawn-out E flat major chord or another chord that never seems to cadence where it should, and I can't help but raid my CD collection to get my Wagner fix.

So what I'm curious to know is this: do you, blog reader, have any specific memories associated with your first opera experience? I'd love to hear from you if you do. Leave a comment and let me know what sparks your operatic memories.

Thank you,


Summer Opera Camps

Opera Camp 2008 – Project Row House & YES College Prep. School

Everyone has an artistic side to them, no matter what their age. I’ve had the honor and privilege of singing with the Houston Grand Opera Chorus since 1990 and after many years, still feel the excitement when I walk on stage and perform in front of an audience. As I continue to teach others, I realize how gratifying it is to help youth gain that same strength, confidence and excitement I received from my teachers. I would like to share some of my experiences teaching the Opera Camps this summer.

I taught 2nd and 3rd graders at Project Row House in Third Ward. We learned many aspects of opera from singing, dancing and acting to creating sets and backdrops. Getting to know my students was not difficult. These children have a wonderful way of expressing themselves through their artistic talents. Using theater games and exercises, I was able to open a safe environment for them to learn about themselves and others around them. We took a walk around the block so that the kids could take a different look at their neighborhood. I explained that when we drive by the same scenery everyday, we grow numb. But if we take a walk in the same area, we will see many new things. As we arrived back to the classroom, I paired them up into teams and had them work together on their drawings. Sometimes we see things differently from others and it’s nice to compare our thoughts in order to get a more vivid picture. The accuracy and details of these drawings were incredible. The kids suddenly recognized different styles and colors of homes, different shades of grass, power lines, different shapes of the clouds in the sky and even threw in their favorite sports or luxury vehicle. It was quite amazing. They also loved to dance to the cha cha slide and cupid shuffle, which was exactly what was needed in the time of low energy and sometimes HIGH energy. We discussed many instruments in an orchestra, talked about the maestro and even conducted a few patterns of 2/4 time and 4/4 time. They didn’t seem to be very interested in the “acting” portion of the classes, but they attempted it and quickly moved on to drawing and dancing, their forte. We had some great singers in the class, but being a young age, they wanted to move on to more exciting adventures such as freeze dance. This was a game that we played music and everyone dances….at any moment the music could stop…they had to freeze…the last person moving had to sit until we eliminated all but the final dancer. They LOVED this game and requested it daily. These children are all brilliant and you could see their love for the arts in many ways. I’m proud of each and every one of them.

In the YES College Prep. School, I taught an Opera Class for the 8th graders. They learned how to write an opera from the ground up…using their own words, style and actions to express a story through music. Although a bit timid in expressing themselves in front of others at first, these kids are unbelievably talented. We took an incomplete storyline written from a previous YES Prep. student and built the dialogue for the characters, wrote music, built sets and backdrops and finally added some choreography to a few chorus numbers. The results in rehearsals have been incredible. We took the teenager approach to expressing a work of art, designed and performed by them. Once the kids were able to put themselves in the characters’ shoes, the rest was history. Within two weeks a new opera was born. In the past few days the kids rehearsed, polished and performed their production for the entire school. It was a success….after all, it’s the kids story, I just assisted in some direction.

Performing is something each individual does daily, whether at work, school, out with friends or at home with your family. All of us have a performance to express…and the world is our audience. Each experience we have in life is based on our performance—the only difference in opera and theater is that it gives us the opportunity to become someone different. We get to experience being someone else for a while, different characteristics, different appearance and sometimes a different spirit and appreciation for our own characters we’ve been given in life. I want every person to experience a great audience….There’s no better feeling!!!

In closing, I stand in awe of the kids’ hard work and dedication in such a short period of time. You can do anything you set your mind on…even write and perform your own opera…you just have to go with what you feel.

KUDOS to all of you, both Project Row House and YES College Prep. School. You’ve made me very proud!!!!!!

Best of Luck to all of you,

Derek W. Henry

The Meaning of Outreach

To kick off the Opera to Go! portion of the HGOco summer blog, I would like to begin with a “testimonial” from one of our singers, Cecilia Duarte.

“This is my first year as a member of Opera to Go! It has been a good challenge tying to keep the energy up for 45 minutes. It may sound easy, but an audience full of kids is demanding. Now, performing Romeo & Juliet for high schools has brought new challenges for us.

“It wasn't until last month that the word "outreach" came to mean something to me. Thanks to the Texas Arts Alliance grant that we received, we have been able to perform in many community centers and libraries. One of the greatest experiences for us was mid-May when we performed at South Houston Branch library. We had around 6 to 8 people in the audience: two moms with a toddler and a little girl, and a couple of teenagers. The scene didn't look promising; however, when we started singing, they went completely quiet and attentive and stayed like that for the whole show. They had never heard an opera before, but still, they showed how happy and interested they were. There was a kid that stayed after the show asking all kinds of questions about singing and opera.

“At the end of May we went to JD Walker Community Center where people clapped every time they heard a high note or liked what we did on stage. Some of them were constantly clapping through our arias! At the end, one lady came to me and told me: "Thanks for performing as if you were doing it at the Wortham." It made my whole day! I said to her that every performance had the same importance; that it didn't matter where it was.

“Finally, we went to Lee High School, where we performed for kids of immigrants. They were kind of crazy when they came into the auditorium. They had a field day that day, so they were tired, and we weren’t sure what to expect. Again, they seemed to change their state of mind when we started the show. They became very exited and interested in what we were doing. At the end, we got to stay to talk to them about our backgrounds and how we ended up singing opera.

“I think we always give something to our audience when we perform, but they also give us something in return. Their responses give new meaning to what we do, and it matters more because we share our music with someone who needs it. For many of them, even if they wanted to go to the opera they would not be able to do so. They might not know how to say what they think with a technical vocabulary, but they are honest, and show appreciation and gratefulness in their attitudes. It is wonderful to see when they are moved.”

-Cecilia Duarte, Opera to Go! mezzo-soprano