• How We Made An Opera In Just Five Days

    By COC Staff


    DISPATCHES FROM THE OPERA WORLD

    Guest Writers: Participants of the COC's Summer Opera Camps Junior Company



    156 lines of dialogue.
    30 costumes.
    24 cast members.
    Five original songs.
    And one world premiere – all in just five days.


    If you told a production team that they had just five days to compose, design, build and rehearse a world premiere opera – complete with costumes and sets – they’d run for the hills. But for the 24 participants, ages 8 – 10, in the COC’s Summer Opera Camps Junior Company, it’s just another week at camp.

    Under the guidance of Drama Specialist Catherine Hume, Designer Sonja Rainey, Music Director/Composer Chris Thornborrow, and a team of dedicated staff and volunteers, the campers build an opera from scratch. Some have never even seen an opera before, or performed in public.

    On the Mend tells the story of the Humpty Dumpty Egg Carton Crew, who love nothing better than hanging out on the wall with their friends, the Birds. But one day, the crew gets carried away and suffers a Great Fall. The Royal Medical Response Team does what they can to repair the damage, but there are some things — like a lingering and crippling fear of heights — for which there is no quick fix. Is there anything that can help the crew to overcome the lasting effects of their terrible mishap?

    Now, in the campers’ own words, read about their whirlwind creative journey.


    DAY 1 - Getting to know opera and new friends

    Today the campers start building the foundations of their opera, from learning the story to choosing their roles. But first – what the heck does opera even sound like?

    Deirdre, age 9: When I think of opera, I think of ladies singing really high in a pink, floofy dress. If I could describe it in one word, it would be LOUD.

    Kalil, age 10: This will be my first time seeing an opera or being in one. When I think of opera, I imagine an orchestra, music set to a play, with an audience, and Surtitles – my mom told me about those.

    Rory, age 9: I know that people sing for a very long time and sometimes they have big fancy dresses.

    Isabella, age 10: Opera is fun! My school comes to see the children’s operas at the COC. I want to be an actor and at school we do a talent show, where I sing and dance. I’m also on the skip squad.

    Cynthia, age 10: When I think “opera,” I think “classical.”

    Dennis, age 9: This is my second year of camp and it’s very fun. I’m most excited for the performance and acting, especially the comedy and funny parts. I’ve seen operas before – my brother was in The Biggest Pumpkin Ever at camp and I saw one at the COC that had a pool and puppets. It was insane!

    Edie, age 8: When I listen to opera, I hear a lot of “A” sounds – it sounds like people are just saying “ahhhhh.” And most of it’s not in English. I like operas in Italian but sometimes I get tired of reading the translations. I’ve seen one opera – I don’t remember the name but it was here. Some people tricked their girlfriends into thinking they were someone else and then the girls fell in love with them. There were big butterflies on the stage. Our opera is different because it’s in English. It’s easier to sing in English but if it was in Italian, it would be pretty interesting.

    Kalil: I came to camp because my friend Raffi is here and our moms are friends. I also like acting and participate in my synagogue’s Purim play, where we choose a theme and tell the Purim story. One year it was Dr. Seuss, last year Grease, and this year we did Hamilton! I think opera is different from musicals because you sing everything but we talk in our opera.

    Anna, age 8: Well, I had a bunch of options to choose from for camps – there was an art camp, another art camp, and I forget the rest. I was really shy at this point because I thought it would be all solos – so I was like “no way” but then my parents just signed me up! I was like “What?! You did?!” But I ended up being very happy and have lots of friends, like Samantha. I didn’t have any friends yet and we were in a skit together and I just decided I want HER to be my friend.

    Samantha, age 10: And then I started talking to her and we started flying like birds.

    Anna: And now we’re friends.

    Deirdre: This is my first time at opera camp. I do a lot of sports, like soccer, swimming and softball. I’m HORRIBLE at art with a capital H. But me and my sister are very good singers for some reason – it’s not in our genes, although my mom is a very good public speaker – and I can sing super high.

    Once the campers break the ice and get to know each other, they start diving right into preparing their opera.

    Chris Thornborrow, Music Director: I’m really excited to tell this story; it’s a really dramatic story for all ages. We feel that this is the “Pixar Opera” of Opera Camp – it’s got things for adults, things for kids, and a really good message.

    Isabella: Our opera is based on a book. We read the story this morning, After the Fall [by Dan Sanat]. It’s about Humpty Dumpty who is afraid of heights after falling off the wall and is scared to go back to doing the things he used to do. I like the ones based on books – next year we should do a Harry Potter opera!

    Cynthia: After we learned the story, we got to choose our roles. There was a chart and there we wrote down the character names – like Humpty Dumpty and the Couch Potatoes. And then we could pick which one we liked best.

    Isabella: I’m not nervous about getting my first choice. I think I’ll get the part I want – I want to be a Couch Potato or a Bird or a Doctor.

    Deirdre: I want to be an Egg or a Couch Potato. The Couch Potatoes are LAZY and I LOVE trash talking. I like pretending to be mean but not actually in real life so that would be a fun character to play. I did Shakespeare classes and we played a game where we read Shakespeare trash talk – “you foul smelling, wart looking lout!” is my favourite! I’m excited to get my role and start practicing.

    DAY 2 – Getting into character   

    The day starts with music rehearsals led by Music Director Chris Thornborrow where they learn about vocal health, projection, and singing the intentions of their characters. The campers also need to learn five new songs before Friday, and will even compose one of their own.

    Kalil: We sang four or five songs today. The first one we sing, “On the Mend,” is my favourite and the “Flying” song. It’s hard to learn the music so quickly. It’s kind of fast and we’re singing so many new songs at one time and I can’t read music for singing, only piano.

    Cynthia: I do a lot of singing – I’m in the Toronto Children’s Chorus – and I’ve seen an opera before on TV. I don’t think it will be hard to learn all the songs.

    Denis: This year is different from last year because we’re singing opera at a higher level and we got to compose a new song. As a group we added different pieces and words – “Does this work? Does that work? Maybe it didn’t.” Then we put it all together and Chris added the piano. I’m proud of the whole thing.

    Chris: The song is called “Step By Step” and it’s towards the end of the piece. It’s the first time we wrote a song in two-part harmony and they did it in less than an hour. I’m really proud of them for the song they wrote.

    Today also marks the first major day of blocking. The campers received their parts and really start digging into their characters – and they have lots of ideas.

    Catherine Hume, Drama Specialist: This is what happens when there are a lot of creative brains in the same space – there are a lot of ideas and that’s great.

    Isabella: Catherine handed us the scripts with the name of our character on it. I got Couch Potato.

    Cynthia: I have five lines and I’ve memorized half of them already.

    Deirdre: Falling off the wall is the best part. In our blocking rehearsal, we get these outlines in white tape so we know where to end up – it’s like in the olden days when they’d tape around a dead body at a crime scene.

    Anna: We lean forward off the wall and then start twirling around and then we just fall into our egg shapes. I was worried I was going to be bad at it and I’d get a small part, but then I did a little skit and I got the Egg, my first choice.

    DAY 3 – Setting the stage   

    Time to get messy! Under the guidance of Designer Sonja Rainey, the campers break out the paint brushes to create three giant backdrops to serve as their set and countless individual props and details, including a wall of creatively named cereal boxes.

    Samantha: If I could give a piece of advice to someone thinking about doing Opera Camp, it would be to bring an extra shirt because it gets very messy.

    Edie: Biggest challenge? I think the sets. If they’re going to be good, it will take a lot of work.

    Isabella: I liked making the brick wall because it looks like real bricks. You take your sponge, you dip it in the water, squeeze out all the water, and then you dip it in the paint and place it on the (canvas) wall. I think the audience is going to think it looks a lot like real bricks.

    Cynthia: There were too many people crowded by the brick wall so I wanted to do something by myself. I’m painting a window in the Couch Potatoes’ living room. I’m going to do a plane and probably a gloomy sky because the Egg Crew is really gloomy that day. It’s really nice to have the freedom to do whatever interests me. We don’t have art class that much at school so it’s a chance to be creative. You can do whatever you want here and no one is judging you.

    Isabella: We’re also making the grocery store, where the Eggs are going shopping to buy cereal but they’re afraid of heights so they can’t get to the top cereal, they can only get to the bottom cereal, which is all the gross ones.

    Amara, age 8: I made some fish and lentil cheerios. Ewwww.

    Samantha: My cereal box had RAISINS in it.

    Raffi, age 9: I like mixing paint, it’s so satisfying. You just swish it around and it just explodes! I like acting in the actual opera, but then probably designing next.

    Cynthia: I think the audience is going to be really surprised that the set is all by 9 and 10 year olds.

    DAY 4 –Great eggs-pectations

    One day ‘til show time and there’s still lots of work to do – like running through the opera for the first time and making their costumes.

    Isabella: We finished the whole opera but we still need to practice A LOT.

    Anna: We remember our cues but then sometimes we forget and you say “Liiiine!” and (the instructors) tell it to you. All the instructors are really nice and they’ll try to help you out with whatever you need. They’re really enthusiastic and they make us feel better about what we’re doing. And on the day of the show they’re going to be in the front row in case we forget our lines.

    Isabella: I felt accomplished but it’s not quite ready for an audience – we’ve got to memorize our lines and our cues and where we’re going. The hardest part is probably costumes because I’m not very artistic but I feel like I’ve improved in my art by working with other people.

    Cynthia: I’m a Bird and was most excited about what my costume was going to look like. It’s unusual and awesome. I’m called a “Pird” because “Purple” plus “Bird” equals “Pird!” I’m the only one who picked purple because it’s unusual. I have a lot of favourite colours and purple is in first place with pink.

    Anna: The Egg costume is very thick and there’s newspaper on the inside and blue on the outside and it looks like a cut in half oval. We also have legs that we move around on the wall so it’s like they’re dancing.

    DAY 5 – Flying high

    It’s the big day. After their dress rehearsal, the campers shake off their pre-show jitters and get ready to take the stage…

    Catherine: It has been an amazing week and it kind of happens that every show we do becomes my favourite and this one just might be my new favourite…

    Samantha: The dress rehearsal was quite fun. There were a couple of costume malfunctions but I think we can sort those out. Some of the Egg costumes’ straps have fallen off but I think they’ve been fixed now.

    Anna: I don’t know what happened to my egg. I think it was too small so the strap ripped in the middle of the dress rehearsal. I am kind of nervous of it falling off in the show but if it happens, I’m just supposed to hold it on. But I’m excited because I really like the falling part and one of my best friends might be coming.

    Cynthia: It’s exciting to perform in my costume because in costume, it feels like you have wings — but when you’re out of costume you feel like yourself again.

    Kalil: I feel like we’re not as prepared as we should be but I think the audience hasn’t heard anything better so they’re going to think it’s wonderful.

    Dennis: I feel excited. Even if there’s a little mistake, nobody’s going to really notice. And I think the show’s going to be great!

    Amara: I don’t get nervous, I just get jumpy and excited. I get boosts of energy that might help.

    Deirdre: I don’t even think about my nerves.

    Samantha: We learned opera singers say “toi toi toi” before a performance which means “spit spit spit.”

    Rory: Saying good luck” is “bad luck” in a performance. If you said “good luck,” it would be pretty bad luck.

    Anna: I wouldn’t get mad if someone said that but usually you can say “break a leg.”

    Amara: But I don’t want to break a leg!

    The Opera Garden fills with a crowd of excited families and friends as the campers focus themselves and make any last-minute tweaks to the costumes. Then it’s time to take to the stage for the world premiere of On the Mend. Watch some clips from the performance!


    The whole week has been building up to this moment, when many made their stage debuts. So how did it feel?

    Dennis: The final performance was great! I loved the acting and the parents laughing and all the clapping at the end. I’ll definitely come back for a third year.

    Isabella: Almost everything went to plan, except for some small things but I don’t think anyone noticed.

    Anna: It was really fun. My egg straps stayed on and I’m glad my friend could come – that added some extra pressure. But I liked my performance even though I thought it was going to be really scary.

    Kalil: It was great. I loved the singing, I loved how we were so well-prepped.

    Cynthia: I was really nervous and it was really exciting to perform with people who had the same likes as me, like singing, arts and drama.

    The show may be over but the experience will stay with them forever. And perhaps there will be a little more opera in their future…

    Samantha: I was nervous at the beginning of the week because opera is kind of like this really full out thing but then I got more used to it. I thought it was going to be really hard and tough. But in the end I found it quite good and fun. The best part was performing with friends.

    Anna: I’ve made great friends even though we’re only here for a week. At the start of camp, I didn’t think of opera like singing, I thought it was just people making sounds with their mouth. But I really like it now. I like doing it with friends and I like that you get to act at the same time as singing. I don’t think I’ll be an opera singer when I grow up but maybe just a singer.

    Dennis: I loved performing in an opera because it’s more fun than just being in a play. You get to mix the singing and acting.

    Deirdre: If I could give advice to kids coming next year, I’d say: DON’T SWEAT. Don’t be so scared, don’t be so nervous.

    Kalil: I’d come back to summer opera camps, for sure. It’s a mix of two things that I like – theatre and singing. And when you put them together, you get a musical! Or an opera! I just love that feeling of being on stage. 

    Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.



    SPECIAL THANKS

    Summer Opera Camps Staff
    Catherine Hume, Drama Specialist; Sonja Rainey, Designer; Chris Thornborrow, Music Director; Ysabelle Ferrer, Opera Camps Administration Assistant; Nishina Loft, Opera Camps Design Assistant; Christine Sutcliffe, Opera Camps Volunteer Assistant

    Summer Opera Camps Volunteers
    Yalda Homayoun, Mika Wee, Maggie Liu

    COC Staff
    Sarah Forestieri, Children, Youth & Family Programs Manager, Maureen Callaghan, School Programs Manager; Katherine Semcesen, Associate Director, Education and Outreach


    Photo credits: Participants of the 2019 COC Summer Opera Camps Junior Company, photos: COC Staff



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