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
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
"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
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.
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.