Children of the opera

If you could get inside the head of the average school kid, what would you find about opera? Fat-lady clichés topped with horns and singing at the top of their lungs for hours? Or would you find a little opera buff pining for a heroine, cheering for a hero, laughing at the jokes, and enjoying the spectacle of it all? You might find more than you think, if the Opera Guild of San Antonio has anything to say about it.

In the past six years, OGSA’s Opera in the Schools program has provided access to quality opera and musical-theater performances to tens of thousands of area schoolchildren, and the numbers are growing. They’re set to reach 15,000 this year alone. Combined with top-notch educational materials to prepare them for the experience, OGSA has an effective formula. In fact, that might be more local kids than adults that are in the know.

Founded in 1974 as the Opera Guild of the Symphony Society, OGSA was a subsidiary of what is now the Symphony League. They organized student performances, opera previews, a talent search, and an early Opera in the Schools project. The group’s primary function was to raise money for the opera festivals and other works the Symphony had been producing since 1945, providing a much-needed source of income and audience in the post-war economy of San Antonio. For 30 years or so, the Symphony was the only show in town.

When the Symphony quit producing operas in 1984, the Guild changed its name and established a broader mission statement, which included promoting “the awareness of opera” through volunteer activities relating to opera, and “to raise and maintain funds for the support of charitable, operatic or educational purposes.” They supported various festivals, performances, activities, and road trips. Several years later, a couple of independent developments occurred and things began to click.

In 1996, Mark Richter started the Pocket Opera, a small local company that has since grown into the fully professional San Antonio Opera, which producing three grand opera productions every season. In 2001, UTSA brought in William McCrary to direct the Department of Lyric Theater, which produces a fully staged opera in the spring and musical theater in the fall. The three independent organizations have worked individually and collaboratively to develop a substantial — and increasingly savvy — audience for opera in the Alamo City.

The Guild has made major efforts to create broader appreciation and access to an art form that has natural appeal as a grand theatrical form, yet is burdened with an unfortunate reputation as an elitist, difficult to understand and — the most widely held myth — boring and outdated medium. In order to shift that perception, OGSA has developed a multi-level approach to promote opera as the vital art form it is.

Aside from contributing substantial production funds for performances, the Guild sponsors lectures and demonstrations, including an Opera Study Course, and other programs for adult student and community groups and the public at large. The Guild’s 400 members enjoy special events, receptions, and trips to the Austin Lyric and Houston Grand Operas.

In recent years, the Guild has put a lot of energy and resources into cultivating a large and particularly receptive new target audience: the thousands of area schoolchildren for whom it’s all new. Their success rate seems to prove that opera is anything but antiquated.

In partnership with McCrary’s program at UTSA, the Guild coordinates small-scale productions at local elementary schools. When UTSA or SA Opera have a full-scale production, the Guild send elementary, middle, and high school kids by the busload, free of charge, to dress rehearsals in the concert halls — a more exciting and fully realized experience than the gym or the school cafeteria. The Guild has also assembled a body of educational materials and lesson plans provided to the schools in advance of the performances, so the students are knowledgeable walking in.

By collaborating with UTSA and SA Opera, the Guild is making serious headway with students. Mark Richter, Artistic Director of SA Opera, says that with their own limited staff, they were seeing 300 to 400 kids at dress rehearsals. Since the Opera Guild got involved, he says “We’re now seeing thousands of kids.” His response to the quality of the educational materials? “Oh, yes, very well done.”

“UTSA has a great program under Bill McCrary, and the Opera Guild is famous for their support and educational endeavors,” adds Richter. “There are so many kids out there that we’ll never overlap.” And if they do, so what? The kids will get too much opera?

Opera Guild of San Antonio

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