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Program takes young Ross students on opera adventure

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Randy Jarosz | For the McKnight Journal
West View Elementary School sixth-grader Aidan Kelly works on his opera- themed diorama diorama during an opera workshop for North Hills School District elementary students Thursday, March 21, 2013, at Ross Elementary School.
Randy Jarosz | For the McKnight Journal
Mia Bonnewell with the Pittsburgh Opera sings during an opera workshop for North Hills School District elementary students Thursday, March 21, 2013, at Ross Elementary School.
Randy Jarosz | For the McKnight Journal
McIntyre Elementary School fifth-graders Grant Mumper, 11, (right) and Jake Higgins, 11, cut out opera singers to make a diorama Thursday, March 21, 2013 during an opera workshop for North Hills School District elementary students Thursday, March 21, 2013, at Ross Elementary School.
Randy Jarosz | For the McKnight Journal
McIntyre Elementary School fifth-graders (from left) Ciara Lynch, 10; Kayla Haile, 11; and Cassidy Goodworth make an opera-themed diorama during an opera workshop for North Hills School District elementary students Thursday, March 21, 2013, at Ross Elementary School.
Dona S. Dreeland | McKnight Journal
Representatives of the Pittsburgh Opera, (from left) Mia Bonnewell, Amy Stabnau, Daphne Alderson and John Dooley, perform a specially staged opera for gifted and high-achieving third- through sixth-graders in the North Hills School District. Students designed their own opera, “Family Road Trip,” by selecting the situation and the classic opera lyrics that would be sung during a program at Ross Elementary School.

It was a good morning for opera.

Students in the Ross Elementary School auditorium seemed to love every minute of the “Opera Improv” performance by six artists from the Pittsburgh Opera.

Approximately 180 gifted and high-achieving third- through sixth-graders from various North Hills School District grade schools had the opportunity to hear about this classic art from professionals who recently visited Ross Elementary. The children learned to count in Italian; designed their own opera, “Family Road Trip”; and applauded and cheered “Bravi” when the performance ended.

This was the first part of a two-day opera adventure, as students will travel to the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh on May 2 for a Pittsburgh Opera performance of “La Cenerentola,” the Cinderella story, by Gioachino Rossini.

Martin Richter, West View Elementary gifted-education instructor, helped to arrange this new partnership between the Pittsburgh Opera and the district. He also designed three other activities – a video lesson and quiz that taught voice types in opera, making shoe-box dioramas of the Rossini opera and a tongue-twister contest that pays tribute to the composer's rapid-fire patter songs. The students rotated through the activities during the morning of song.

Richter, 54, who has taught for 28 years, has a background in music theory.

“As a teacher in the classroom, opera is always well represented,” the Ohio Township resident said.

As the assembly began, John Dooley, baritone, asked the first question: “What is opera?” Students responded quickly, their hands shooting into the air. Every response was accurate in a way: “When you sing a story in Italian” — “Stretch out words to make it dramatic” — “A play that is sung.”

The children, some of whom already had attended an opera, were off to a good start in a program that held their interest throughout the hour.

The professionals sang and explained the range of their voices and the parts that they most often would play. Even though students didn't understand the language, they identified the emotion of the songs and giggled as Amy Stabnau, soprano, flirted with the boys in a song from one of Giacomo Puccini's works.

“What a pleasure it was to present to the delightful students at Ross Elementary School,” Stabnau, of Ben Avon, said. “I thought that they were exceptional. Every group was tuned in, attentive, well-behaved, informed, and very sophisticated in their responses and insights. They were so willing to jump right in and participate.”

Ross Elementary fourth-graders Connor Burik and Abby Maier, both of Ross Township, volunteered to take part in a recitative, a sung dialogue that moves the action of the opera along, with Daphne Alderson, mezzo-soprano. In song, she welcomed them to an imaginary McDonald's and asked them for their orders, which they placed by singing, too.

“It was fun,” said Abby, “and a little scary.”

Connor described it as “an awesome moment.”

Alderson, of Emsworth, said she was impressed with the audience.

“It was very touching to see several young kids who were radiant during our ‘Opera Improv' presentations,” she said. “I was amazed by how well the kids participated. Every single class was bright, curious, well-behaved and energized!”

The highlight of event was the opera singers' performance of “Family Road Trip,” complete with costumes and props. As the father drove his family off to Kennywood, they sang about the day they would have. They couldn't have imagined they would discover a dinosaur bone and be scolded by the national park ranger.

The story ended well with the quintet singing lyrics from “Rigoletto” by Giuseppe Verdi. Still in character as the family, they then prepared for their road trip home.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or ddreeland@tribweb.com.

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