Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Reflections on CLEMENCY & the AFH Youth Artists

The 2012/13 season Opera Annex production of James MacMillan’s Clemency took place at the Artists for Humanity (AFH) Epicenter in February.  For twenty years, AFH has been empowering and employing Boston teens in a uniquely intensive program of arts, creativity and enterprise. AFH partners youth in small groups with professional artists/designers to design, create, market and sell art products. 

In preparation for the production, Clemency scenic designer, Julia Noulin-Mérat, worked with AFH youth artists in the 3-D design studio in a series of workshops during which participants read the libretto of the opera, completed research and design sketches, built scale set-models of their own design, and presented their work to Julia and the Clemency Stage Director, Andrew Eggart before seeing BLO’s own design for the opera.  AFH youth artists also attended special events with the composer and librettist, visited the A.R.T. Scene Shop to observe the set build, and attended the Final Dress Rehearsal and performances of Clemency.  Recently, Julia reflected back on her experience leading the project at AFH.   

BLO: Normally, working as a scenic designer and artist, what do you find intriguing or inspiring about working with teens?
Julia: I think they come into it with no preconceptions, and with a very open mind—an uncensored mind.  And their curiosity is different.

How is it different?
What they latch onto.  Sometimes it’s very impulsive, and sometimes it has to do with what is relevant to them – having gone through [an experience] or something they’ve heard about and they want to explore that more.  The typical approach is that you start thinking dramaturgically about the context of the story. 

Describe the kind of energy that young, developing artists bring to this kind of project?  How do you respond to it as an artist yourself, and as someone being given a mentorship role to young people?
My answer to that question would have been completely different ten years ago, in the sense that social media has completely changed human interactions.  [Teens] are growing up in a world where they’re constantly attached to their phones.  So, to ask them to focus on something is completely different.  You really have to engage with them.

Does that make your job harder?
Not harder, but you have to constantly ask them questions, and be proactive.  When I was doing things like this ten years ago we had more time to process things.  Now, you have to be ready to constantly draw things out of the students.

Why is it important to expose young people to scenic design and technical theatre?
It gives them a better comprehension of what happens behind the scenes.  And I think it really covers the basics of multiple subjects.  You start with the text—basic English and literature skills.  Then there’s the mathematical aspect of how you are going to fit everything [in the scenic design] onstage, basic problem-solving.  Then there’s the art history and appreciation – depending on the approach you take.    It’s really exciting for young people to know that there are jobs out there that do require knowledge in a little bit of everything, and that change every day.  I remember myself, I had no idea this job existed.  [Laughs.]  It’s good to know that there are other kinds of artists.  Usually, people hear “artist” and they think you’re a painter or a sculptor.  But art can be so many different things.  

Did you have any experiences as a teen that inspired you to get involved in set design?
It’s actually kind of funny—I was in pre-Med [laughs] and one of my friends said, “Julia, you’re seeing plays two to three times per week.  Don’t you think there’s something to that?”  And I was like, “Oh, no, no, this is just a fun little hobby.”  But I started interning [with a set designer], and I just fell in love with it.  And I sat my parents down and said I thought I would try set design.  And they were very supportive, luckily.

That’s great you had such supportive parents.
My mom, when I was a kid, did something very smart.  She took me to see Bluebeard’s Castle, the play, and then I saw Bluebeard’s Castle, the opera.  It was cool to see the different cross-cultural aspects between the mediums.  

What was your favorite experience from working with the young artists at AFH?
The fact that they’re already coming from an environment in which they’re really excited about the arts, and they’re already pre-disposed and open-minded to experience something new.  And at AFH they’re so used to doing all these art installations for other clients, so they’re coming in with all these tools already, which is great!

Any final thoughts about the program at AFH?
I think the exciting thing about this project was that we embraced their space.  Instead of creating a theatre inside their space, it was more of an art installation than a set—a different interpretation of design.  And they got to see the whole puzzle of singers rehearsing, the acoustic challenges.  It’s really cool for them.  It would be one thing to go talk to them and then show up at the Shubert, which is cool too, but at AFH they could literally peek downstairs and see the process.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Second Annual Festival of Classroom Operas

This Friday, Boston Lyric Opera hosts its second Music! Words! Opera! Festival of Classroom Operas at Wheelock Family Theatre. In this culminating, celebratory event, classrooms join theatre workshops, share their opera knowledge, and demonstrate selections from their original classroom operas.

So what is Music! Words! Opera! exactly? This interactive, multi-disciplinary curriculum from OPERA America is currently BLO’s principal youth program. It is designed by a team of opera professionals, composers, curriculum specialists and classroom teachers to bring opera right into school classrooms. 

The curriculum has two components: first, students are introduced to the world of opera, learning its language, history and structure while studying opera and music-theater masterpieces. For the second half of the curriculum, students work with their teachers and BLO teaching artists to create a libretto and music to produce and perform their very own opera. M!W!O! reflects the highly interdisciplinary nature of opera as it uses the art form to aid students and teachers in their explorations of history, language, literature and music. Furthermore, with the Create Your Own component, M!W!O! also encourages students to find new creative means of self-expression.

During the summer, BLO offers a free one-week-long Teacher Training Workshop (PDP’s available) to any educator who is interested in bringing the arts into their classrooms. The workshop is led by skilled facilitators from OPERA America who provide all the tools and resources educators need, not only to teach students about opera, but also to guide them through the creative process of writing an original music-theater work. While learning invaluable classroom arts education skills and earning professional development points, teachers also create and perform their own original opera at the end of the summer workshop.

Classrooms participating in M!W!O! also receive many other opera enrichment opportunities with BLO. This past year, participating classrooms were invited to visit a rehearsal of BLO productions of Madama Butterfly and The Flying Dutchman. Nearly 250 students came to the Shubert Theatre and experienced a full-length professional opera production.

In the spring, BLO also arranges Classroom Visits by teaching artists for participating classrooms. During these visits, a BLO singer and pianist demonstrate live opera performances but also talk about their personal experience, sharing the details of life as a performer of opera. Students also have the opportunity to share their works-in-progress and receive professional feedback as they prepare to perform their own original works at the M!W!O! Festival in May.

As BLO wraps up the year with the M!W!O! Festival as its grand finale, it is also preparing to greet new teachers and participants for the 2013/14 season. Registration for the free summer workshop is now open! (Click HERE to register) You can also watch and listen for more about this exciting opportunity by viewing these videos: Introduction to M!W!O! and Teacher's Workshop Performance.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Meet BLO's Teaching Artists

In honor of 
BLO would like to thank all of the teaching artists 
from the 2012/13 season.

Teaching Artists are working artists who engage learners of all ages  by teaching their craft.  In the 2012/13 season, Boston Lyric Opera  has proudly worked with a number of talented Teaching Artists (some of whom appear regularly onstage with us!) who bring opera into the community—particularly with children—to increase exposure and practice of the art form.

These teaching artists are an integral part of most of our community engagement events: workshops at the Boston Public Library, the annual Open House, workshops with Wheelock Family Theatre, and Music! Words! Opera! Classroom visits.  Because of the collaboration with teaching artists, audiences have opportunities to learn and ask questions about opera with real, working opera performers.

Meet BLO's Teaching Artists:

"My favorite moment of the season was 
coaching little kids at the West Roxbury 
library for The Magic Flute tableaux. They were 
so uninhibited and creative—it was a joy to watch!”
Heather Gallagher joined BLO at Boston Public Library workshops and this year’s Wheelock Family Theatre Workshop at the Open House.  She is a recipient of an Encouragement Award from the Licia-Albanese Puccini Foundation (2011), and the 2nd Place Award for Metro West Opera's 2011 Opera Competition. This year Heather was a member of the chorus in BLO’s  widely acclaimed productions of Madama Butterfly and The Flying Dutchman. This month she makes her debut in the title role of Bizet's Carmen with Metrowest Opera. She will return to BLO in the 2013/14 season as a Resident Teaching Artist.  To learn more about Heather’s work, visit

"My favorite thing about working as a teaching
artist is seeing the brilliant smiles on children and
adults of all ages as they sing and as theater 
is brought to life in front of them. BLO bridges the 
gap between the performer and the audience 
through community work."
In addition to singing in the chorus for The Flying Dutchman this season, Vanessa Schukis provided the vocal demonstrations at this year’s Open House and taught Boston Public Library workshops. Ms. Schukis has a multi-faceted career as a character mezzo, actress, stage director, choreographer, vocal coach, educator, and author of two children’s books.  She has sung a wide variety of operatic, oratorio and Broadway repertoire to great critical acclaim.  In addition to being a performer, Vanessa is an award-winning teacher with over thirty years experience in performing arts education focusing on students with learning disabilities and special needs.  Currently Vanessa teaches music through the outreach program of The Community Music Center of Boston. For more information about Ms. Schukis, visit
"My favorite thing about working as a teaching artist
with BLO this season was watching the students grow.
In just two days, a bunch of nervous, excited students
learned and mastered challenging music, took risks, 
and became accomplished performers in their own right.
The look on their faces, with the full knowledge of
what they had achieved, was an absolute thrill."
Brendan Buckley co-taught the 2-Day Opera and Dramatic Performance Workshop for teens with Wheelock Family Theatre this past fall. He is a MA native and is quickly gaining a reputation as a skilled and sought-after performer, recently performing as Howard Boucher in Boston Opera Collaborative’s New England premiere of Dead Man Walking.  He is also a passionate educator, with ten years of experience teaching both adults and children. For more information about Mr. Buckley, visit   

"Teaching for the BLO/WFT Opera Program is a wonderful
opportunity to work with teens who are passionate about
opera, classical music, and musical theatre. In the Gilbert 
and Sullivan workshop they truly embraced the extremes
of character and comedy to be found in operettas."
Grace Napier, an Equity actor, singer, dancer and graduate of MIT, teaches for BLO through Wheelock Family Theatre. She has enjoyed a successful professional acting career throughout the United States and Canada.  Career highlights include touring with Rudolf Nureyev in The King and I, starring opposite Stacy Keach in A Christmas Carol, and performing classic roles like Cinderella,  Julie Jordan, and Yum Yum. Most recently, she directed WFT's acclaimed Story Troupers and an IRNE award-winning 
main stage production of Seussical. 

It is the dedicated and generous work of Teaching Artists, often taking place between auditions, rehearsals, performances, running private music studios, day-jobs, and family-life that make BLO youth education programs a success. We hope you’ll join us at a community engagement event next season, where you might just meet a member of this talented team! 

Throughout the 2012/13 Season, BLO youth education programs have impacted nearly 1,000 students in after-school programs, opera and dramatic workshops, free community events, and in-school outreach. Help BLO continue to share opera with young learners in our community and donate today.