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Ellicott City preschoolers get a head start on opera, thanks to Lewis

Children will perform Wednesday at the Howard County Center for the Arts
By Sara Toth

Preschoolers at the Ellicott City Head Start Center are learning to hit all the right notes, thanks to a local opera singer in residency with the Howard County Arts Council.

Yvette Lewis, a lyric soprano and music educator who has performed with the Washington National Opera and the now-defunct Baltimore Opera Company, is the latest artist-in-residence with the Head StART in ART program.

The Head StART in ART program is a partnership between the Ellicott City Head Start Center, a federally funded program, and the Howard County Arts Council. Through the program, preschool children are given hands-on access to in-depth art experiences ranging from dancing to painting — or, in Lewis’ case, singing.

Since Nov. 8, Lewis, of Bowie, has been teaching six classes of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in Head Start classes. The 50-some students, who spent more than a month learning the concept of opera, will perform Lewis’ original operas based on “The Little Red Hen” and “The Gingerbread Man” for friends, family and the public Wednesday at the Black Box Theatre at the Howard County Center for the Arts, in Ellicott City.

The students in the Head Start program are from low-income families and otherwise might not be exposed to such influences, Lewis said.

“This can be a steppingstone for other cultural and classical experience, whether it be art or dance or drama,” she said. “This can be a pathway for them being willing to accept other art forms.

“Kids this young should be exposed to all kinds of things because this is the time they’re most receptive. It’s an age before they have a chance to be tainted or influenced negatively in any way. They come at anything you give them with the purest sense of acceptance.”

Lewis meets with the classes twice a week for half an hour, during which time the students sing and work on art projects.

Students ‘all smiles’

Laura Vittetoe, a teacher with Head Start, said her students get excited when they know Lewis is coming into the classroom.

“They’re all smiles,” she said. “They stop what they’re doing, clean up really quick, and they’re ready to learn whatever she has. She makes it so much fun for them, and they really enjoy it.
“The songs are really catchy, too. I go home singing it for the rest of the day.”

She isn’t the only one: Another teacher, Maria Irizamy, reviews the songs her students learned with Lewis before dismissal. She then goes home and teaches the songs to her son.

“The songs are great,” Irizamy said. “The kids love (Lewis). They learn the music really fast; they enjoy it and have fun. It’s good to see these kinds of arts in the school because kids aren’t always exposed to art at home, and it’s an important thing for schools to bring out their creativity.”

When the students aren’t singing, they’re listening to Lewis tell them stories about the operas they’re learning. Actually, when it comes to teaching opera, Lewis said, the music is the last thing she introduces.

“Always begin with a story,” she said. “I want to give them an understanding of what opera is, which is a story that you sing.”

The only problem with teaching children opera, Lewis said, is that most operas are inappropriate for the age group. Still, she wanted to introduce children to the concept of a “singing story.” So she wrote her own based on stories the kids already knew.

The simplification makes opera appropriate and approachable, which Lewis acknowledged isn’t always the case.

“People don’t understand it,” she said. “A lot of times, it’s in a language that you don’t understand, and, frankly, sometimes (opera singers) can be off-putting. We tend to believe the drama. That’s just the nature of the beast, which is why I try to make it as simple as possible.”

Lewis, whose residency here ends after the students’ performance, spent 12 years as an elementary school music teacher in Montgomery County during the day. By night, she was performing with organizations such as the Washington National Opera and Baltimore Opera Company.

She needed time to practice her music, so she wound up teaching her students the opera she was singing at the time. What evolved from that busy and frantic schedule became her life’s work, she said.

“I developed an entire opera curriculum based on my need to practice,” she said. “The entire situation was kind of hard, but I didn’t want to give up, either. I’m a trained classical singer, but I love working with kids. This is a perfect marriage of the things I treasure.”


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