Dozens of eager children pour out of packed school buses and into the corridors of Munson Chapel. They are here on campus to see music come alive through the opera.
Ahead of the recent performance of The Vanishing Bridegroom, Melanie Galloway, DMA, asked several preliminary questions to engage the animated students inside the auditorium.
“What characters will we be seeing today?” Galloway asked.
Several little hands shot up in response.
“The Bride!” shouted one.
“The Groom!” said another.
“Woman Number Three!” said an energetic young boy, as the audience roared with laughter.
For the third year, the School of Music’s Opera program partnered with the Center for Academic Service-Learning and Research to develop an educational outreach program for local schools most in need of music intervention. The effort introduces students in the community to the classical tradition of opera.
“With financial constraints and budget cuts, music and the arts are often the first things to be removed from school curricula,” said Cindy Montgomery, associate director of the Center for Academic Service-Learning and Research. “Here in Azusa, where school and familial resources are often stretched thin, students now have an opportunity to see a genre that many of them have never been exposed to.”
The School of Music reserves one showing of its two annual opera productions specifically for local school children and educators.
Galloway, an associate professor of vocal studies and the artistic director of APU Opera, launched the opera outreach project, inspired by her time mentoring inner-city youth from shelters in New York City, where she lived and worked as a professional opera singer.
“I enjoy teaching APU students to use their talents for good and to benefit those less fortunate,” said Galloway. “Opera is not about receiving critical acclamations. It’s about becoming a gifted individual with integrity that honors God.”
Opera is sometimes perceived as an elite genre that’s difficult for modern audiences to comprehend, so the APU Opera team works to break down those barriers. In helping children connect with the material, they provide worksheets and synopses ahead of the performance to help students better enjoy the opera when they see it live. The handouts, which are created by APU Opera students, introduce the young learners to characters, plots, acts, and scenes, as well as the various instrumental roles and noted members of the orchestra.
“It’s beautiful, because children are open learners,” said Galloway. “Where an adult may have preconceived notions about opera, kids are ready to soak it all in. We often underestimate what children are capable of enjoying and learning.”
Recently, APU collaborated with local schools to design an opera worksheet that best reflects the current Board of Education curriculum standards for language arts.
“It is all done in a fun and interactive manner,” said Montgomery. “The students are learning before they even see the performance.”
Music and the arts have an underestimated and profound influence on students, but opportunities for creative exploration are dwindling. Since the beginning of the economic downturn, public schools have lost millions in funding for music and arts programs, and far fewer students are enrolled in music education courses than were before the recession, according to the California Music Educators Association.
“That’s why we do what we’re doing—to fill these gaps that the public schools have been forced to make,” said Galloway. “Students don’t have any chance to experience and learn about music. Many have hidden musical talents, but they may not discover them until it’s too late.”
Adrian Greer ’13, a local youth worker who attended the event, said he welcomed APU Opera’s efforts to supplement arts education. “I appreciate that this program allows students to see that the performing arts field isn’t limited to those who can act, sing, or play an instrument,” he said. “There are also behind-the-scenes jobs and all sorts of supporting positions available to them.”
When the performance was over and the actors took their final bow, the cast met with the students to answer questions and sign autographs.
Leilani Ahia ’14, a lyric soprano, said she hoped the performance stoked the aspirations of a future artist. “When they ask for my signature, I often ask them, ‘So are you ready to start singing opera?’ and you’d be surprised how many of them say yes!” Ahia said.
Opera may be a historic art form, but it continues to communicate stories in the universal language of music.
“For a lot of students, it’s the first opera they’ve seen, but hopefully not the last,” said Galloway. “We want to ignite a spark in students to pursue their dreams and creativity, because our God is creative. His art can be seen everywhere.”