Local school becomes an opera house

After the USD Department of Music Opera Workshop completed its performance of the children's opera "The Princess and the Pea" Monday afternoon, Nov. 9, a St. Agnes Elementary School student had just one question for USD student Clint Johnson from Harrisburg, one of the opera's cast members.

"Why are you wearing a dress?" the child asked.

"Did you guys laugh?" he asked the audience of elementary students, sitting spellbound on the floor of the St. Agnes School gymnasium.

"Yes," a chorus of young voices answered in unison.

"That's why I'm wearing a dress," he said.

More laughter followed, along with a growing awareness on the part of the children that, even though opera may be an unfamiliar art form, it certainly is enjoyable.

Under the direction of Tracelyn Gesteland, D.M.A., professor of voice in the USD Department of Music, the 50-minute opera, which is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, began its tour of various locations in Vermillion. The first performance was held Nov. 4 at 4 p.m. in Colton Recital Hall on the USD campus. Monday's show at St. Agnes School was the first performance held off-campus; it was followed by a show Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. at Austin School.

The USD students will stage the opera at 1 and 2 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17 at Jolley School.

Gesteland said the goal in developing "The Princess and the Pea" for the local stage is to bring opera to elementary school children, many of whom may experience the classical music for the first time.

Following Monday's performance, she was confident that the performers met that goal in their elementary school debut.

"We wanted to show the young people that opera can be fun and entertaining, and the idea was to bring them a familiar story, so they could meet us halfway," Gesteland said. "It's a lot to ask for them to accept this aesthetic. They're not used to hearing opera singing, so hopefully the humor, and the familiar story and the broad characters helped to draw them in without asking them to go too far."

The audience, ranging from pre-school students up to fifth-grade pupils, at times was enthralled as they concentrated on the unique storyline of the somewhat familiar tale told them in such a unique way. "For pre-schoolers to be that involved in a 45 minute production, I think, is pretty good," Gesteland said.

She knew from personal experience that the performance would be a positive experience for both her undergraduate and graduate university students, and the community's elementary youth.

"I have actually performed opera for young audiences. I did a 10-month tour with Houston Grand Opera's educational outreach troupe, and we would go into schools and perform operas for children," Gesteland said. "I just thought it was such a wonderful thing both for the children and the community and the performers, and when we were talking about ways to build up our opera program at USD, I just thought it was a natural thing to do.

It just seems to benefit everybody, and definitely our (vocal) students had a wonderful time today (Monday), getting the laughs from the kids and feeling their energy and their appreciation," she said.

At the end of their performance, the USD vocalists didn't start packing up their gear to head back to campus. They stood in full costume, and fielded questions from their young audience.

"I know as a performer, that's the part that I always looked forward to – to see what the perceptions were and to hear the different questions that came up, and I think my students enjoyed that today," Gesteland said. "I was very happy to see all of the teachers their, too. It really spoke highly of the staff to stay and watch. The teachers really seemed to enjoy it as much as the kids."

One of the students asked the cast how they came up for the idea to perform at his school.

"Well, this was an opera that was written for school kids, and I've actually performed this, and I thought this would be really fun for us to bring to you," Gesteland told the St. Agnes pupil. "So we got together, and we worked really hard to practice the music, and then we eventually made it here to your school.

No detail went unnoticed. One student noticed that Kristin Edwards of Aberdeen, who performed as the queen, placed an unusually large pea under the mattress of the princess' bed.

It was actually a golf ball painted green.

"The pea was so big because it's easier to work with that rather than a real pea, and it's funnier," Edwards told the audience. "And you wouldn't be able to see it if I had a real pea. This way, everybody was able to see it."

The cast, featuring a mix of USD undergraduate and graduate students, is Amanda Rich of South Sioux City, NE, as the Princess; William Darwin of Sioux City, IA, is the Prince; Ryan Landis of Rapid City is Buffo; Kristin Edwards of Aberdeen is the Queen while Cody Perk of Yankton is the Doctor. Susanne Harmon of Sioux Falls is Dragon; Tim Cone of Rapid City is Ogre; Megan Donohoo of Houston, TX, is Cook; and Kendra Van Nyhuis of Hull, IA, and Clint Johnson of Harrisburg, are Hilde and Esperanza.

In addition to "The Princess and the Pea," Gesteland, Rick Piersall, professor of voice at The U, and the USD Department of Music will produce the department's first full opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors," this December. The first performance of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 5 at the Akron (Iowa) Opera House. The cast will feature a mixture of USD students, community members as well as members of the faculty at USD.

"Another goal of ours is to reach out to the adult and the high school-aged members of the community, and to try to get them involved," Gesteland said. "We have a couple of community members this year, and hopefully, we will get more and more people involved."

She hopes Monday marks the beginning of a continual interaction between music performers at USD and area young people.

"I'm hoping that we can do this on a regular basis. There are a lot of wonderful children's operas out there, and I hope that we can eventually tour to schools outside of Vermillion," she said. "This is a really good first-year experience for us."

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