You may already be aware that OPERA San Antonio is presenting Verdi’s Macbeth, the first production in its fourth season, at the Tobin Center on September 8 and 10, 2017. But did you also know that OPERA San Antonio offers more intimate performances to students through its education programs in San Antonio schools? I recently visited a theater classroom at Kirby Middle School in Judson ISD to observe a school visit by OPERA San Antonio artists, who are awakening a new generation to the beauty of opera.
Here are some basic facts about Kirby Middle School. It’s located on the northeast side of San Antonio in the city of Kirby, and it feeds into Wagner High School. According to the TEA’s 2015-16 school report card, the student demographics at Kirby Middle School were 22.3 percent African American, 65.4 percent Hispanic, and 8.8 percent White. Its students were 84.2 percent economically disadvantaged and 9.3 percent English language learners.
On the day of OPERA San Antonio’s visit, I checked in at the front desk and was guided to the back of the campus, to a low, wide brick building that houses the cafeteria and and the theater classroom belonging to teacher Melissa Jordan-Chavez. On a small stage in one corner of the room, mezzo soprano Madeline Elizondo, tenor Thomas Soto, and accompanist Mark Alexander prepared for their first presentation. The theater students entered, as well as choir/orchestra teacher Joel Porras and his students.
Elizondo asked the students if they had been to an opera before. During the two class sessions I observed, only one hand went up. Then, she asked if they had seen a play, and many hands went up—especially among the theater students. She prompted the students to share things they had seen at the theater: sets, props, lights, costumes, wigs, makeup, and so on. She emphasized that even people who are not singers have important jobs to do at the opera.
Elizondo and Soto made an effort to put opera in its historical context. (More information is also available in the Macbeth study guide.) Opera is an art form that is hundreds of years old, and was developed before amplification technology. It’s a distinctive singing style that carries the voice over the sound of the orchestra. Voices have different ranges and timbres, and singers are cast to fit the roles they play. Elizondo used examples from Disney animation, such as Snow White, a coloratura soprano, and Lion King villain Scar, a bass.
An essential part of the school visits is getting the students on stage with the opera singers. To prepare for singing an aria from Bizet’s Carmen, Elizondo invited female students on stage and coached them to look either jealous or admiring. She called up male students and instructed them to act like attention-seekers.
In the role of Carmen, Elizondo sang and flirted around the stage while Soto, as Don José, sat in a chair and pretended to ignore her. (Spoiler alert: later in the opera, he falls for her anyway.) Even though the song was sung in French, the students knew what it meant and got excited about describing the situation.
Opera has the power to stir deep emotions, as the students experienced when Soto sang an aria from Macbeth, which is currently in rehearsal at OPERA San Antonio. Verdi’s Macbeth is based on the Shakespeare tragedy about an ambitious Scottish general and his wife who commit murder on their way to claiming the throne. MacDuff had fled Scotland, but returned to find his family killed, and is surrounded by refugees who are also suffering wartime trauma. Elizondo and Soto brought students on stage and gave them brief directions, e.g., “you are sisters,” or “you are an orphan and I am caring for you.” Soto sang the aria with all his heart and connected with the students on stage, as a leader who is sharing the suffering of his people. It was an emotional moment in the classroom, with misty eyes all around. All of this happened in a middle school classroom, with none of the trappings of a staged opera—just story, music, and acting.
During my visit to Kirby Middle School, I observed two class sessions. Elizondo, Soto, and Alexander were planning to present to four more classes in the same day. Opera singers are true professionals with years of training to develop that stamina. It was a treat to hear beautiful music in the middle of a Thursday morning, and also heartwarming to see the connection between these teaching artists and the young theater and music students who are setting goals for themselves. If you are an educator, I encourage you to contact OPERA San Antonio to inquire about their education programs.
These school visits depend on financial support from OPERA San Antonio donors. To contribute to OPERA San Antonio, visit operasa.org/donate or call 210-673-7270. OPERA San Antonio’s education partners include the San Antonio Public Library, the Texas Commission on the Arts, and the Ewing Halsell Foundation. OPERA San Antonio also donates tickets for students to attend its productions. In its 2017-18 season, OPERA San Antonio will present Verdi’s Macbeth on Friday, September 8, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, September 10, 2017 at 2:00 p.m. and Puccini’s La Bohème on Thursday, May 17, 2018 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 7:30 p.m. All performances will be in the H-E-B Performance Hall at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
- “Explore Opera! With OPERA San Antonio at the San Antonio Public Library,” Inga Cotton, San Antonio Charter Moms, August 17, 2017
- “Sneak Peek at Madama Butterfly with OPERA San Antonio,” Inga Cotton, San Antonio Charter Moms, October 1, 2015
- “OPERA San Antonio Brings Fantastic Mr. Fox and His World to Life,” Inga Cotton, San Antonio Charter Moms, September 19, 2014