New School Preparatory

Sesame Street Meets Puccini

When these voices were raised in song, they reached higher than you might expect of kids.

By Michael McLeod | Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted December 29, 2003

It's five minutes to curtain time. The cast is in place backstage and the audience is brimming with holiday cheer. But it's all Karen Sorin can do to keep a grim smile in place.

Sorin is the show's director, and what she has on her hands is no ordinary grade-school holiday show.

This one features a cast of 145 students, ages 5 through 13, and none of them is dressed as archangels, elves or dancing reindeer.

This is the annual Winterfest of the New School, an ambitious private K through 8 prep school near downtown Orlando. The school has a tradition of upping the ante with its holiday shows, challenging students and surprising parents with unusual productions. Once it was fractured fairy tales. Another year it was scenes from Broadway musicals.

This year, it's opera.

Bizet. Gounod. Puccini. Mozart, in German. Verdi, in the original Italian. All of it mixed in with a few other traditional Italian folk songs and brought to you by a cast that can barely remember boy bands.

When Sorin and co-director Etty Baru proposed the idea, even Sorin's husband, school director Morrie Sorin, was taken aback. "I thought they were crazy," he says.

Opera is the heavy lifter of the performing arts. Everything about it is big: themes, casts, costumes, voices, waistlines. Kids are little. Karen Sorin seems to think this is not a problem. At least that's what she keeps telling herself.

"Our kids don't know they aren't supposed to be singing opera," she says. "They don't know it's supposed to be too hard for them. They think it's fun."

Still, there are a few adjustments that have to be made. Third-grader Catherine Frederick is nearly lost amid the singers and dancers penned up backstage. Catherine, 8, will be part of a chorus singing "Papageno," from Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, and "L'Biamo," from Verdi's La Traviata.

Here is what she has to say about opera:

"When you sing Italian, you have to move your mouth a lot."

Fellow third-grader Ele Clark, 7, seems to be relishing the challenge. "It's a lot harder than "Clang clang clang went the trolley" and "yodelei-hoo," she volunteers.

Out in the audience, parents are comparing notes about a sudden surge of interest among their young ones in foreign languages and Puccini CDs. Cindy Schmidt says she could sense that the contagion of operatic excess had taken hold of her daughter, cast member Alex Schelle, 8, when Alex requested a juice box on the way out the door to the performance -- provided that someone else would hold the juice box for her.

"She couldn't carry it herself because her nails were drying," said Schmidt. "I think I have a diva on my hands."

Now there is a round of shushing backstage. Dozens of slippered feet pad into place. The show begins.

First there is the warm-up: a humorous song about opera, in English. It's filled with inside opera jokes -- many of which the kids have come to understand:

I never did like opera

They always sing too high

Vibrato always bothered me

It made me want to cry.

Then we tried singing opera

We found it very tough.

It takes a trained professional

To sing such difficult stuff.

True enough.

Yet who knew 8-year-olds could look so convincing belting out the wine song from La Traviata? When was the last time you heard what a group of hearty kindergartners can do with "Funiculi, Funicula"?

It may be the stuff of amateurs, but the operatic sampling stitched together by the New School cast works remarkably well.

Somehow the expansiveness of "O Sole Mio" is even grander when embraced by youthful chorus.

Somehow the alluring "Habanera" from Carmen can be translated into shimmering innocence by fifth-grade girls.

After the show, a relieved Karen Sorin breaks away from a swirl of backstage hugs to say that what opera taught her was to never underestimate the secret life of children.

"They understood the passion of the music," she says. "During rehearsals, I got a group of second-graders together and asked them if any of them had been in love."

One by one, all of the hands had gone up.

Copyright © 2003, Orlando Sentinel.

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Bizet. Gounod. Puccini. Mozart, in German. Verdi, in the original Italian. All of it mixed in with a few other traditional Italian folk songs and brought to you by a cast that can barely remember boy bands.

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