dateJanuary 26, 2009
categoryOpera Carolina News
Students discover opera's appeal
Opera used to sound "corny" to Javetria Mavin.
It seemed the kind of music that only appealed to a distinct group of people - old, rich and white.
What relevance could songs about Spanish barbers and murderous clowns have to a young African American woman walking the halls of West Mecklenburg High School?
But a UNC Charlotte outreach program called "Opera for All" has opened Mavin's eyes to the beauty of the classic art form, and opened her mind to a world of possibilities.
Mavin is one of four Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school students taking part this week in the university's performance of "Solomon and Balkis," an opera written in the 1940s about King Solomon's love affair with the Queen of Sheba.
This is the second year the college has recruited talented high school singers to participate in its shows.
Opera is a tough discipline, one that requires a strong voice and hours of practice. The program gives the high schoolers valuable voice training and stage experience.
At the same time, it helps keep alive an art form that has increasingly lost ground to the gritty, urban music of the streets.
"Opera has a bad rap," says Anne Harley, a UNCC music professor. "It can sometimes feel like a museum piece, if you let it."
Tuxedos, opera glasses, elaborate gowns and high ticket prices have turned what was essentially the musical - or music video - of its day into an art form mostly enjoyed by the upper crust.
People may go to concerts, but they attend the opera.
Harley combats that perception by bringing a fresh look to the staging of classic pieces.
The set of "Solomon and Balkis" is modern and minimal. Solomon's elevated throne isn't made of heavy, dark wood, but instead is crafted from sleek iron bars. Long, white curtains hang from rafters and act as giant video screens. Images and colors flashed onto them during a rehearsal last week.
Mavin and the other performers stared at the set and talked excitedly about what it will look like when the lights go down and the show begins.
"Kids today are really into technology, so it helps to incorporate some of that into the show," says Lindsay Bentley, 22, a UNCC senior starring in the play. "We want them to see how beautiful opera can be, instead of having them think it is just this boring thing where people sing high."
Mavin, 17, has always loved to sing. But like many of her classmates, she has long favored R&B, rap and hip-hop. Usher, Neo and Mary J. Blige are some of her heroes.
And whenever she ran across opera on the radio or TV, she changed the channel.
"It just sounded like hollering to me," she says.
This is a stereotype opera lovers fight all the time. Teresa Robertson of Opera Carolina says young people often turn their noses up at the mere mention of the music.
The company has worked for years to introduce opera to a younger audience. Robertson says the key is to help students relate to its universal themes.
"Opera deals with love and jealousy and revenge," she says. "These are the things we deal with every day. And there is no place more dramatic than school."
Three of the four high schoolers in this week's UNCC performance were recommended by Abdullah Birdsong, a West Mecklenburg High music teacher.
Birdsong said most students are resistant when opera is introduced. He hooks them by comparing opera and its performers to today's stars.
"I tell them to think of it like an extended music video," he says. "And I tell them that the music was written for the Beyonces and Kid Rocks of their time."
Birdsong said he also points out the pragmatic side of the historic genre.
"Only a few can be rappers," he says. "Only a few win 'American Idol.' But universities are clamoring for young, talented people to join their music programs. Opera can provide some very real scholarship opportunities."
Mavin is joined in the program this year by three other high schoolers: Wykia Crawley, 16, and Yesenia Merced, 17, from West Mecklenburg; and Tatianna Mosley, 18, a senior at Independence.
All four have different goals in life. Mavin wants to be a radiologist, Crawley wants to be a cardiologist, Mosley wants to major in music, and Merced wants to be a pediatrician.
But all four say the program has opened their eyes to scholarship potential, as well as the merits of music they once mocked.
"When I first got into it, my friends were like 'What?'" Mosley said. "But I have really learned to like it. It is challenging but, at the same time, moving. When you watch it live, it can really speak to you."
By Clay Barbour