The group will sing secondary roles in company productions at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House -- opening with “Rigoletto” on March 15 -- and will star in public school shows in Metro Denver and around the state during the current season.
CPR caught up with the costumed quintet and pianist Taylor Baldwin as they presented a lively, condensed, English-language version of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” before a well-behaved, thoroughly entertained audience of 350 K-5 students at Stedman Elementary School in North Park Hill.
Afterwards, the show’s Figaro, 26-year-old baritone Jared Guest sat down to talk about his Colorado experience.
Jared Guest: It’s the most difficult thing you’ll ever do as a singer. They are the harshest critics. If they don’t like what’s going on, they’ll let you know. And it’s really hard work keeping their attention. You have to change their mindset about experiencing opera. It’s an enormous effort. They’re not used to sitting down and paying attention. This group at Stedman was fine, but we’ve had kids who got bored, got up, walked right across our performing space and out the door. You have to grab onto your audience -- your projection has got to be a hundred times bigger. But, hey, if you can’t hold onto a group of two or three hundred kids, how are you going to grab an opera house filled with 2,000 grownups?
You’re one of the few singers who opted to audition once again for the Young Artists program and was selected to return for a second year. Why did you want to come back?
This program is so performance-based. It’s geared to help aspiring singers. We do about 60 of these in-school shows while we’re here from January 5 to May 31, plus we’ll do other outreach programs and, of course, we’ll be in the productions at the Opera House. Young Artists director Cherity Koepke had us working right from Day One. The five of us had to learn to work together and get along. Part of the audition process is looking for outgoing personalities, for singers who will work well together. And that’s been the case with us. We spend all of our work days together. We are housed in one place -- the guys together and the gals together. We come from all over the country, although soprano Colleen Jackson and I knew each other from Florida State. But we quickly became friends. We enjoy hanging out when we’re not working.
When did you decide to pursue a career in opera?
It began with one of these in-school programs. I was a second-grader in Orlando, Florida and I saw an outreach production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.” I’d never seen an opera and I was fascinated with it. But I was also a little confused. Afterwards, I asked my teacher why the singer portraying Hansel was not a boy. My teacher blushed, and tried to explain that opera was sometimes different. But I was hooked. As soon as I could, I joined a school choir, and I was on my way.
Do you think you’ve connected with any of your young listeners? How can you tell?
Oh, just by the feel of the room. They always respond to things like the kiss shared by Brett Sprague’s Almaviva and Louise Rogan’s Rosina -- a moment that drew a loud “ewwww” from the Stedman kids. And there are times where they become restless and distracted; those quiet moments. And we understand. Their attention spans are miniscule. They’re used to their iPads and cell phones and all that. Still, I think they have a good time. Will they become opera lovers? Maybe. Maybe not. But I think the exposure is a good thing. You never know. If I can reach one kid who was like me, when I first heard opera, then it will be worth it.
Is that the goal of these in-school programs -- to create opera-lovers?
That’s certainly part of it. We’re growing a new audience here. Where else are they going to experience live opera this early? Everything we do is important, even the short Q&A sessions after the show. The other day, we sang for high schoolers at Denver West, and one Latina had a question for Louise, who’s from England. The girl wondered how she was able to sing without an accent. And Louise explained that through training and proper technique, she could avoid showing her English accent. We found out that the girl always wanted to sing, but had avoided joining a vocal class because she was embarrassed by her accent. After she learned that it wouldn’t be evident, she was excited and said she would pursue singing. How cool is that?
As part of Opera Colorado’s admission-free Family Day at the Opera on March 22, the company’s Young Artists will perform a condensed “Barber of Seville” twice in the lobby of the Ellie Caukins Opera House at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.. Information: (303) 468-2030. While there may be some availability on the day of the performances, admission and seating is not guaranteed as the performances are sold out.
Marc Shulgold is a freelance writer, teacher and lecturer. He was previously the longtime music and dance writer at the Rocky Mountain News.