‘Bravo!’ Portland Opera To Go comes to school

Portland Opera entertains, teaches students at Pleasant Valley Primary School




o "Hansel and Gretel" was composed by Engelbert Humperdinck. No, not the Vegas lounge singer. The original Humperdinck was a German composer who lived 1854-1921.

The school performances are not open to the public, but the outreach program is coming to a number of other venues this winter and spring.

Here is a full list of dates.

Portland Opera On The Go, the company's outreach program, kicked off its 2012 tour at Pleasant Valley Primary School in the Battle Ground school district. It seeks to expose young children to the art form, but also promises benefits in reading, writing and math from its program. The singers performed a shortened version of "Hansel and Gretel."

o “Hansel and Gretel” was composed by Engelbert Humperdinck. No, not the Vegas lounge singer. The original Humperdinck was a German composer who lived 1854-1921.

The school performances are not open to the public, but the outreach program is coming to a number of other venues this winter and spring.

Here is a full list of dates.

A powerful baritone filled the primary school gymnasium to the rafters.

“My children are lost in the gloomy wood,” thundered Stacey Murdock in his rich voice.

About 200 students from Pleasant Valley Primary School hung on every sung syllable as Murdock bemoaned the loss of his fictional offspring to the haunted forest.

At the end of his aria, the young children erupted in shouts of “Bravo! Bravo!” like seasoned opera aficionados. The kindergartners, first- and second-graders had already learned how one applauds at the opera house — the first of many benefits of bringing opera to schools, organizers and teachers said.

The little kids in the Battle Ground school had just watched the first of 79 performances of the Portland Opera’s outreach program. The troupe is taking “Hansel and Gretel” to schools, community centers and even a few taverns around Oregon and Southwest Washington this spring.

Pleasant Valley was their first stop and the only one in Clark County this year. Amy Campbell, a third-grade teacher at the school, had pushed very hard to get the singers in front of the kids.

“I know how important the arts are for kids,” Campbell said. “It has all kinds of benefits.”

Exposing young students to fine arts can help them with learning math and science, and improve their

writing and reading, she said. Kids exposed to the arts tend to read more, get involved in their community at higher rates and are less likely to skip school or drop out, according to research published by the group Americans for the Arts.

Opera is a multifaceted art form that can be a springboard for many subjects, said Alexis Hamilton, the manager for education and outreach for Portland Opera. The opera doesn’t just send out singers on its monthslong outreach program — it ships teaching materials aligned with state standards in advance of the troupe’s arrival.

Students at Pleasant Valley are using the curriculum to learn about different styles of writing and to practice reading. Some classrooms are even writing their own operas.

The tale of children getting lost and ending up in the hands of a malevolent stranger also gives a good reason to study mapmaking. And the younger ones are learning about what to do when approached by someone they don’t know. The story about two youngsters saving themselves in the dark woods shows the students that they have the power to get through tough situations, Hamilton said.

These benefits convinced the school to ask Portland Opera to come, said Principal Missy Mitchell. But it didn’t have money in the budget for the visit.

The opera typically asks schools to pay $1.50 per student expected to attend, Hamilton said. And even though that doesn’t cover the expenses of the outreach program, that price still is negotiable. Donors cover the lion’s share of the outreach.

The opera used to charge nothing at all, but found that schools didn’t value the program, canceling at the last minute or not using the provided curriculum, Hamilton said. The company still will not turn down any school for lack of money, she said.

Pleasant Valley got the troupe at $1 per head. But even that couldn’t be covered out of the school’s budget. Campbell, the teacher, offered to pay for the whole thing, said Mitchell, her boss. But Mitchell didn’t let the veteran classroom teacher do that and instead suggested asking parents to send a dollar to school with their kids.

The school also told parents they could sponsor a child of lesser means by sending an extra dollar. The response was very positive, Mitchell said. Some parents even paid for their kids’ entire classroom.

And so the little school brought fine arts to its students. Shortly after lunch Wednesday, students streamed into the gym. For the next 45 minutes, the story of the two innocents in the dark woods unfolded. Some of the gruesome details of the Brothers Grimm original version had been softened by the composer. Still, a few scary passages remained.

The kids appeared mesmerized throughout. They gasped when the witch appeared, swayed in rhythm for a happy dance number and, yes, on a few occasions plugged their ears when the baritone threatened to bring down the brick walls.

The keeper of that thunderous voice said he loves singing to the kids. He knows of what he speaks — Murdock estimates he’s sung to about 150,000 children over seven years.

When he sings for grown-ups, the audience is behind what pros call the fourth wall. Singers pretend to not see the crowd, keeping alive the illusion of their act. But singing for the kids, he’s encouraged to make eye contact, sing directly to a child and make the experience personal for each young listener.

Children are well-suited to the art form, Portland Opera’s Hamilton said. They don’t mind a story told in song. Children get much of their information from the visuals in front of them, which works great for this theatrical delivery, she said.

That’s what the outreach program does, besides providing teaching tools. It gets young minds used to opera and creates future music fans. Portland Opera audiences have gotten younger since the company started the outreach 12 years ago, Hamilton said.

“I like changing minds,” Murdock said. “It’s entertaining, it’s fun and kids love it.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-609-6734; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com