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opera camp turns 20

By Karen Reeves, HGO Children’s Chorus director and director of The Opera Experience

This is the 20th year we have been running Opera Camp at HGO. We started the first camp after several Children’s Chorus auditions for our opera productions. Many of the children auditioned with songs that were inappropriate for them, either vocally or, occasionally, because of the subject matter. In Opera Experience, which is the camp for children entering grades 4 through 9, we not only teach them songs selected for their ages and voices, but also give them the knowledge and experience to be better prepared to audition for the Children’s Chorus. The time together during the camp also allows me an opportunity to get to know them better than an audition can allow.  

We give a performance at the end of the week on Friday and everyone performs the ensemble songs; each child also learns a few solo songs. On the first day of camp we introduce three solo songs for the children to learn. They also receive a CD with the piano part for these songs, so they can more easily understand how their part and the piano part work together. The second day we continue in the voice class with the solo songs and each child picks one to learn and to use for an audition on Thursday. We continue working on solos and ensemble pieces each day and on the fourth day they all audition individually for me and another HGO staff person who has not seen them before. We announce who will be performing the solos at the end of the day on Thursday for the performance the following day. 

I feel the audition is important for each child to participate in. These experiences help young people grow to be more confident and learn how to present themselves in front of others. In the music world an audition is a job interview. I say to them, “What will happen to you if you go into that audition and you crash and burn?  Nothing. This is not life and death.  It is something you are working towards, but you need to keep it in perspective.” (Especially if you’re 11.)  I also explain the criteria we look for in an audition for a group like the Children’s Chorus. A few weeks after the camp they will receive a DVD of the Friday performance along with brief comments from the judges. We hope this will help them understand how they can be better prepared for those auditions.   

Of course we also have children who have no interest in auditioning for the chorus. That’s fine; performance is not for everyone. Some students come in with a good bit of knowledge, while others have little to no background in music or singing. We make it work; those who have more experience assist in leading as we read through new music and the others learn from them as well as from the staff and interns. 

One of the sessions we hold every day except Friday is a 40-minute music theory class taught by our high school and college interns. We group the kids according to their knowledge level, but our only goal is that after the four sessions they know more about music reading and that they enjoy it. This spurs the interns to be creative, and there are often inventive games involved. I often hear from the young students that they love music theory. Who wouldn’t, when you are in a small group with a cool person four or five years older than you, who is taking the time to give you attention? The interns are essentially the camp counselors and we all know they can at times be even more effective than the adult staff. The experience of teaching a group for whom you design the curriculum is good for the interns as well; a few years ago a college student intern changed direction in her major and decided to go into teaching after her Opera Camp experience. 

Over the last 20 years the basic framework and goals of the camp have not really changed: healthy singing with music that is appropriate for young voices. We try to meet children where they are, so that by the end of the week they will know more about music and have had fun. Today I run into adults who are married with kids who still remember how much they enjoyed Opera Camp. It’s very rewarding.