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from an article in "The Missoulian" July 10, 2008

Camping with Mozart - 'The Emperor's New Clothes' are Chinese, the music is Austrian at youth opera camp

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buy this photo Camping with Mozart - 'The Emperor's New Clothes' are Chinese, the music is Austrian at youth opera camp

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THE MONTANA LYRIC OPERA presents "The Emperor's New Clothes," by students of the Summer Opera Camp, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 12, in the Music Recital Hall on the UM campus. Admission is free and open to the public.


It's summer camp time, and the kids are lined up.

There's the usual assortment of camp clothes - a Philadelphia Eagles jersey, a Griz FUNdamentals Football Camp T-shirt and lots of shorts and sneakers.

The campers take their positions and the order is given - begin!

Quickly, there is a stoppage in the action.

"No, no, no! Not yet!" barks a camp director, Alicia Bullock-Muth. "We just went over this! Write it down!"

Nobody blew a fly pattern or forgot to pick up a block. But somebody did, it seems, enter the stage prematurely. And so the entire camp backs up and does it all over again. From the top, as it were.

Nobody said Mozart was easy.

While a great majority of summer campers in and around Missoula are kicking soccer balls and singing campfire songs and learning the intricacies of the pick-and-roll, this group of 18 kids is learning the fine art of opera.

Welcome to Opera Camp. Or perhaps we should say, "Welcome to Operaaaaaaaaa Caaaaaaaaaaamp!"

For the last two weeks, a dozen and a half kids have spent nine hot summer days in the confines of the Music Recital Hall in the comfortably cool interior of the music building on the UM campus.

But there's nothing comfortable at all about the task before these campers. In those nine days, they will have learned an entire opera, from beginning to end, with all its music and cues and dancing and turning and costuming. And many of them will have done it with no acting or singing experience at all, much less operatic training.

"I know most of these kids won't go on to a career," said Gina Lapka, executive director of the Montana Lyric Opera. "But they'll have a deeper appreciation of what opera is."

How could they not? There's no "I" in team, but neither is there in opera. And this production of "The Emperor's New Clothes," set to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, requires that each kid learn his or her part, and be swallowed into the operatic whole that will eventually culminate into an hourlong performance on Saturday.

Even for trained singers like Emily Peragine, 15, the job is tough. This isn't just singing, it's opera. And opera is an involved art, combining singing, dancing and acting into a cohesive whole.

"It's a lot harder when you're not just singing a song, and you have to do something with it," said Peragine, a sophomore at Hellgate High School.

Peragine is the vocal student of Lapka, who serves as music director for the production. It was Lapka, along with other members of the board of directors for the Montana Lyric Opera, who birthed the idea for a summer opera camp. The MLO is a nonprofit organization, quite new to Missoula, that's dedicated to spreading the word about - and the glory of - opera through performances, education and camps like this one.

"When we developed the company, we really wanted the focus to be on education and outreach," said Lapka.

Reach out is what the MLO did, spreading the word through schools and music teachers around Missoula about the Summer Opera Camp. The MLO had originally planned for a summer camp in 2009, but there was enough interest in both students and the MLO itself to pull it off this year.

"I take lessons from Gina, and I asked her about opportunities in singing," said Emily Juarez, 15, also a sophomore at Hellgate. "She told me about the opera camp."

In all, a total of 18 children signed up, ranging in age from 8 to 17.

It's obviously a wide range of age and abilities, which presents its own problems. How can you run a camp with such diverse backgrounds in the arts? Wouldn't that be akin to holding football camp with Little Grizzly players and high school students?

Actually, said Lapka, the nature of opera allows for all sorts of abilities. In general, the kids with less (or no) experience get the simpler parts, singing their parts in the large, ensemble numbers, while those with more training and experience getting the solos and duets.

Still, this is Mozart, and as we mentioned before, Mozart isn't easy.

Lapka and Bullock-Muth went shopping for a kids' opera, but found that most of the material geared toward the young was "dumbed down" and childish. They wanted authenticity, and they found it in "Operas For Youth," a program created at Westminster College of the Arts at Rider University in New Jersey. That program translates the operatic work of Mozart, Gilbert & Sullivan and Rossini into workable productions for children.

"Most programs have original music that's kind of dumbed down," said Lapka. "This is different. They're singing Mozart's music. The integrity of his music is still intact. So there are lots of teaching moments."

The music is actually taken from several Mozart operas, including "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Magic Flute." It's transcribed to be put comfortably in the range of children, while keeping it authentic and recognizable.

This particular opera takes that music and puts it to the story of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes."

The MLO got some help from the Missoula Children's Theatre, which lent them the costumes, set pieces and props, and from the UM music department, which rented out the Music Recital Hall at a drastically reduced rate.

The Chinese costumes are from MCT's production of "The King and I," which are the only costumes that Lapka could find that would fit all the children.

"What the heck?" said Lapka, laughing during a rehearsal this week. "They have emperors in China. So we'll just set it in China."

So what this group of kids is performing on Saturday is an opera with music written by an Austrian whose librettos are normally Italian, set to a story written by a Dane, performed in Chinese costuming and sung in English.

Now that's a multicultural experience.

"You've got to be flexible," said Lapka.

Will they be ready?

Yes, said Lapka. And it's because of the children's hard work, work that includes memorizing all the music and words, learning their steps and entrances and exits, and performing it all within two weeks.

"I am so impressed with these kids," said Lapka. "I crammed so much down their throats in the first few days."

Emily Juarez admits she's nervous, but as Princess Rosamonde in the opera, she's got to keep things calm.

"I'm pretty sure we'll be ready," she said. "I hope so. Everyone's been really great. It's coming together nicely."

Reach Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

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