Coming from Florida or Virginia, New York City or Chicago, to spend the winter riding in a van around Iowa to perform opera in gyms full of elementary school children doesn’t sound like anyone’s dream job.
But it is for the eight members of the Opera Iowa team, who have been doing just that since early February.
“It’s exhausting,” said Anthony Benz, the music director for the group. “You are performing in a gymnasium or auditorium full of 500 elementary school kids, who have never seen anything like an opera before. And they make more noise than an audience at the Met.”
That’s kind of the goal.
Founded 32 years ago, OPERA Iowa sends a troupe of young singers to classrooms around the Midwest to introduce kids to opera. At each school they visit, the artists offer workshops, perform a one-act opera and sometimes add a longer community performance in the evening.
Then they pack up and do it all over again, sometimes twice in the same day.
It’s exhausting, but it’s also an opportunity to share their love of opera with a new generation.
“I vividly remember the people and the instances of my life when I was younger that showed me that being a musician was a possibility,” said Brandon Bell of Suffolk, Va. “It’s really important to me to know that there’s a possibility there may be some who sees us that believes that they too, can be on stage. And this is the moment that shifted for them.”
Even kids who don’t want to be on stage may be inspired, added Nick Mayhugh, the technical director for the group.
“It’s really cool to show the kids who might be afraid to be on stage that they can still be a part of it,” said Mayhugh. “I like it when the kids see me work.”
Mayhugh works with volunteers from the schools to assemble the sets and lights for the shows, while the singers present their workshops , one on the technical side of the art form, another about types of voices and a last one on how an opera comes together.
Then they improvise their own operas, based on ideas from the audience.
“We come up with a setting, two characters and some kind of a plot,” explained Gretchen Pille of Omaha, Neb.
That can lead to some odd, and creative, operas. In one, kids set the opera in 19th century Germany. The Eiffel Tower was one character and a unicorn was the other.
“The plot was that the unicorn got stuck in the Eiffel Tower,” Pille said. “It was one of our better operas.”
Another had a mime as one of the characters. “The question became, how do you do an opera when one of the characters is not supposed to speak?” asked Max Zander of Great Neck, N.Y. The solution, he said, was when the other character fell down and the mime rushed to help.
After the workshops, the group has about 20 to 45 minutes to prepare for the performance of “Little Reds Most Unusual Day” — a silly retelling of the story of Red Riding Hood.
“It just gets sillier every time we do it,” said Pille.
They will be more serious on Sunday, when they are set to perform a concert of arias at Trinity United Presbyterian Church at 2 p.m.
But while the music may be more adult, it’s even more fun that silliness of Little Red for the singers, who are “having the time of their lives,” said Lauren Cook of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “And I just love watching people do that.”
“It’s really just a joyful, fun experience,” added Zander.
“It’s like seeing a whole other side of a person you thought you knew really well,” Pille said.
The members of the group do know each other well. They travel together, perform together, and when they’re not traveling, they live together. Some are in Indianola for the first time, others are coming back after previous visits.
“It was nice just to come back and go to the Square and see all the old shops that I like,” said Benz. “it’s things that on the surface don’t seem that exciting, but Indianola just feels like home.”
Brandon Bell, from Suffolk Road, Va., had a little harder time adjusting.
“I’m from Virgnia,” said Bell. “I’ve never seen so much snow in my life, and I’ve never been so cold in my life.”
But a new coat, and the warm reception he received, smoothed the transition, he said.
“It’s been so great to be welcomed into every school and every community that we go into.”