Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Good morning readers. Well, we did not have any bear visits, but we apparently have a Sasquatch in the house. At least that’s what it sounded like at 1:00AM. I looked to my bed guardians for protection as I heard footsteps loudly tromping around and doors slamming. After some investigation, it turns out it was only a nocturnal potty break. After grabbing what additional sleep I can, I decide to get up and start the day. As I walk into the living room, I see Leah curled up on the couch. Brett and Taylor are also up and Katherine appears shortly thereafter. Next up is Andrew and then Daniel. This would not be a group I would refer to as a morning bunch. Coffee is prepared and slowly, eyes begin to open and, gradually, speech becomes part of the equation.
We get things into gear and head down to the theater to get ready for the first of two workshops with the students of the Lake City Community School. I have my plan in place and will tailor each session to how the students respond to the first activity. While we wait for the first group to arrive, we begin to load out some of the set pieces. Our first group is here; 4th and 5th graders with a couple of middle school students as well. I make introductions and go over what we’ll be doing as well as cover the rules for today’s class. Interactive workshops are something that I tried out on tour last year and it was a big success. We’ll be doing 4 workshops on tour this year, so it seems to be something that’s in demand.
I start off with a game called the “Name Game.” This is an icebreaker so we can get to know each other a little better and I can get them outside of their comfort zones in a fun way. It works liked I was hoping it would and we can move on as I had planned. We play another game called “Machine” that’s designed to help students collaborate and be creative; another game where they have to guess each other’s emotions using facial expressions; we even do a game where we talk about eye contact and how to introduce yourself. These are all performance skills that we, as artists, apply on a daily basis. They are skills that anyone can utilize in their lives. That’s one of the things I love about the performing arts. They naturally teach you skills you need to know.
We move into the theater and the students participate in a vocal session. We do warm ups, talk about breathing, do some diction exercises and tongue twisters. We get them signing with some fun scales and they’re doing really well. Katherine does an exercise with them that is always a favorite with kids. It’s called a siren. You start in the lowest register of your voice and you slide up to the highest and then back down. It sounds… well… like a siren. Their faces light up when Katherine does the example for them and then they get more excited when they themselves get to do a siren a few times. Next, Daniel and Katherine perform for the students. In contrast to what we do with adult audiences where I explain the piece before they sing it, I don’t tell the kids anything about what they will hear. I tell them I want them to watch and listen and then tell me what they think the piece is about. I love doing this. It’s amazing how much they grab by just watching. This is a great game to use the next time you hear someone say that you can’t understand opera. They are pretty surprised when the Young Artists tell them what they were actually singing about and they see just how close they got. The kids were great to work with. I was especially proud of a young man we had who is on the autism spectrum. He participated in every game; even came up and shook our hands at the end and said thank you. His teacher said it’s the first class he’s ever sat through without having to leave. Way to go young man! It’s not something that surprises me though. Music, specifically opera, connects with people in ways you may not expect. I’ve seen it time and time again.
The first workshop ends and we move on to our next item, lunch with our host John Smith. We’re able to spend time talking about the community and its history and getting to know a little more about John himself. Leah and John quickly bond when they discover they’ve both spent a lot of time in Houston. They talk about their favorite restaurants, best places to relax; you know the important things. The food is good, the company is friendly and best of all, the atmosphere is relaxed. You’ll never know how much we appreciate times like this. Often, when we’re at receptions or dinners, we’re so busy talking about what we do, we don’t always get a chance to relax and enjoy the time we have with the people we’re meeting. John snaps a group photo before we head off to our second workshop and he tells us just how much our visits mean to this community. He says that we add value to their lives. We were the very first opera company to perform here six years ago and that relationship has continued.
Time again jumps forward and, just like that, we’re greeting our second group of students; this time we have high school. I am running on empty. Few people realize just how much energy you have to invest when you’re leading a workshop; and I haven’t recovered from my Sasquatch interrupted sleep… Brett takes the lead on a lot of this workshop so that I can focus my energy on helping the students refine their skills through the games we play. High school can be tricky. Sometimes they don’t want to participate in much of anything. This group is not like that. After the icebreaker game, they are all in and everyone, including us, is having a ball. Brett leads them though “Machine.” In this game, students build a machine using themselves as the parts. Each person chooses one sound and one accompanying movement that they can repeat and, bit by bit, other people join in and a machine is built. It’s a game that teaches collaboration, non-verbal communication, rhythm, focus and working together towards a common goal; all skills we use every day in opera. During one round, the students build a machine in space; in another they create a machine that works in lava. It was hilarious to watch, but for me, as a director, there are few things better than seeing creativity come to life. The more the students get into it, the more excited Brett gets and that helps them to take risks and try things outside of their comfort zone. The other Young Artists start participating in the games too and pretty soon, we’ve got a room full of creative artists.
After a few more games, we move back into the theater space and go through the vocal portion of the workshop. We’ve got them singing in no time and we’re giving them bigger challenges than our first group. One tongue twister proves particularly difficult: “red leather, yellow leather, lavender leather.” Oh, and you don’t just say it, you sing it on a scale. Taylor then really gets them working vocally by singing the Do-Re-Mi scale but using numbers and clapping. It was fabulous. We move on to the Young Artists singing for the students and this time we talk about the role opera has played in challenging people’s stereotypes. Katherine sings a pants role aria from Romeo & Juliet and Brett does the Witch’s aria from Hansel and Gretel. Without any help from us, the students grab the stories and characters right away. We end the workshop with a Q&A session and they have more questions than I thought they would after having just spent an hour with us. “How do we train our voices like that? “ “Why did we get into opera?” Each answer brings another question and we run out of time. As the students leave, a lot of them come up and shake our hands and thank us for coming. We not only had fun, I think we were able to teach them a few things they can use. I’m even able to give my business card to a young man who wants to go into vocal performance and said he just needs someone to talk with about it. That’s another part of what we do. We’re a resource for people.
After the students leave, we finish loading out and I relinquish my key to the theater. We head back to the cabin for a break before dinner. Everyone enjoys their down time while I use the break to get some work done. Break over, we all load up in the pseudo-Yukon and make the drive to our dinner location. We’re being hosted by Harvey Duchene. Kathy, Harvey’s wife had to leave town, so Jasha, another member of the community, jumped in to help.
As we arrive at the house, we are treated to one amazing view after another. The house sits at the top of the ridge and overlooks the valley, the river, a mountain pond and all of the snow covered peaks. It’s absolutely gorgeous. We’re immediately greeted by our host and the conversations begin. Harvey tells us about the house, his career as a geologist and his love of green chili. My interest is peaked. As a native of New Mexico, any time green chili is mentioned, the heart strings begin to flutter. Harvey picks up on that and says he has something to show me. He brings out something I haven’t seen since relocating to Colorado – a New Mexico lobos coffee mug. Turns out, Harvey and I share an alma mater! Leah and Katherine and I talk about traveling and all of the places we’ve seen or want to see. Brett and Taylor are talking and laughing, so they’re surely up to something. Andrew and Daniel are talking to Jasha. It’s a very comfortable, relaxed setting and we feel quite welcomed.
Pre-dinner conversation comes to a close as Harney tells us about the meal he has prepared. We’ll be dining on food from the Yucatan region tonight. Harvey then proceeds to guide us all through a lesson on why this culture’s food is so different and unique from the surrounding areas. It’s fascinating and I feel like we’re not only getting dinner tonight, but a fabulous show as well. We give him a well-deserved round of applause and dinner begins. Now, unless you are a fan of green chili, I can’t quite put into words what happens next – at least for me. One of tonight’s dishes is New Mexico Green Chili Stew. It tastes like home. When you work as an artist and move around a lot, moments like this become pretty poignant. The food is amazing; Taylor informs me that it’s the best thing he’s ever put in his face. Brett… he’s happy and announces that he wants the pickled onions in place of salt and pepper for all future meals.
Once the yummy noises die down, dinner conversation picks up and stories are shared. I learn some things about the Young Artists that I never knew. For example, Daniel has experienced a new year’s tradition in Naples. Apparently they throw old appliances out of windows; and not just toasters or microwaves. We’re talking refrigerators folks. This “out with the old” celebration isn’t for the faint of heart but, nothing really says New Year’s better than lofting heavy objects out of a window onto unsuspecting passersby . I also find out that Leah has a clear grasp on the obvious. Harvey’s dining room table is made from the old support beams from the house. They were 8 feet thick and 19 feet long. Leah stands and attempts to lift the table. She says that it’s heavy. Yes… yes it is Leah. There’s another story about Leah getting out of a speeding ticket when she started to cry. OK, a lot of females try that to get out of a ticket. For our Leah, this was no ploy. She had just been to the dentist and found out that she had a cavity. When she got pulled over, it all just became too much and she lamented her fate to the officer. He let her go with a warning. This story leads to Daniel telling us he got a ticket for jaywalking – his feelings towards the ticketing officer, “Thanks a lot Barney Fife.” In high school, Andrew once decided to race an undercover officer. He reduced his speed from 120 to 100 when he got on the beltway and was then pulled over. The officer asked for his license and registration, which he produced. The officer responded that he was sure the car was stolen. He then asked Andrew where he was going in such a hurry. Andrew replied, “A chorus concert.” He got off with a warning. The stories continue and soon we’re all laughing so hard that we lose track of where one tale ends and another begins.
During dessert, Harvey tells us stories of the encounters he’s had with bears and mountain lions on his property. Once he was visited by a mama bear with her two cubs. The mama bear was teaching her babies how to get into a house. He also tells us that it’s an honor to be able to have us as his guests for dinner and he thanks us for bringing art to their town. The honor, sir, is all ours. We have been welcomed into this community with open arms and sharing opera with Lake City has been a joy. Before we want to, it’s time to go. We have a long drive to Carbondale tomorrow and have a workshop with students and a performance of Romeo & Juliet. We bid out host goodbye and give him and Jasha our sincere thanks for a very special evening. I snap a group shot before we load into the car.
On the way down the mountain, Katherine announces she wants to see a bear. If no bear is available for viewing, then a mountain “kitty” will do. I’m not sure Katherine has fully grasped the concept of the word “predator…” Brett, feeling inspired, performs an impromptu piece set to the tune of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. He rhymes well. Back at the cabin, everyone gets settled for the night. Leah, Katherine, Brett, Taylor and I hang out in the living room and talk while Andrew and Daniel take one last visit to the hot tub. We get on the topic of state songs and Taylor and Brett come up with a plan for the finale of the Young Artists Farewell on May 31st. They will write a medley of southern spirituals and mash that up with the piece “Did You Ever See An Elephant Fly” from Dumbo. Seeing that I am hesitant, they change tactics, moving to Romeo & Juliet. Brett will sing Romeo with a Scottish accent while Leah performs Juliet while juggling. Katherine, as Stephano, will sing with a southern accent and play the saxophone. Time for bed!
It’s late and it’s been a long day. Before any more creativity flows forth, we all turn in. Andrew and Daniel are still in the hot tub, but I figure if a bear shows up, they can put their speeding and jaywalking experience to good use.
Tomorrow will be a long day with a lot to do, but we’re looking forward to taking opera to another community. Time to rest so we can get to it!