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Opus-Pocus: Opera Singer, Kids Share Magical Time

The Charlotte Observer
Republished with permission from The Charlotte Observer.

Opus-Pocus: Opera Singer, Kids Share Magical Time

by REGINA LIGHTFOOT-CLARK, Special Correspondent

Picture this: Opera singer Yvette Lewis performing for students at Ashley Park Elementary School, singing a song about a beautiful witch casting a spell on a hunter.

Before it’s over, it is Lewis who has cast a spell on students.

When I was younger, I wasn’t going to sing this stuff either,” Lewis told students during Tuesday’s performance at the math and science magnet school. “I was going to sing rock ‘n’ roll.”

As a teen, Lewis, who now performs on stage in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., had met Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson through her father, Willie Walker. He was a program director at what was then WGIV-AM in Charlotte.

“When I was in high school some friends and I got together and started a rock singing group – the Hot Chilies,” she said. “We sang Shake It Up, Baby.’ I was good.”

But Lewis says her voice started changing. Eventually singing the song hurt her throat. “I found out what music I was supposed to sing,” she said. The day Lewis fell in love with opera, she had been sent to her room because she hadn’t cleaned it. Mad at her mother, Lewis turned the radio up as loud as she could and began flipping stations.

“I came across this lady making weird sounds. And every single time that lady made a sound, I could, too,” she said.

“I listened to that lady for three hours,” Lewis said.

Lewis’ appearance at Ashley Park was a family affair. Her brother, Charlotte jazz musician Willie Walker, is the music teacher there. Lewis’ mother, Mildred Donald, is the coordinator of magnet schools, and her sister, Claudia Ollivierre, attended Tuesday’s show.

Wednesday, Lewis performed at Chantilly Elementary School.

She teaches students about opera through challenges and teasing seasoned with education and discipline. Before students realize it, they’re singing opera, too.

“Before I start singing I have to do exercises,” she told Ashley Park students. She took a deep breath and counted to 100. Then, she took another. The students took a deep breath and counted to 50, then to 75. “Yes! Give yourselves a big hand,” Lewis said.

Next, Lewis explains that opera tells a story, and in the story, everyone sings. “Opera singers have to say their words very carefully and make sure they pronounce all the words. That’s called diction,” she said. Before Lewis is through, the children have unwittingly learned the definitions for opera, aria (song), cue, orchestra, soloist and conductor. When Lewis finished her song about the beautiful witch, she recruited some students to portray the witch and the hunter. Hands shot up.

“What’s really exciting to see is the cynicism at the beginning and then they’re falling over themselves at the end to sing opera,” Lewis said. Lewis visits schools throughout Maryland, where she lives, and in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey.

As her finale at Ashley Park, Lewis sang a duet with her brother.

“I want you to remember three things about opera,” she said. “All opera singers don’t have horns growing out of the tops of their heads; all opera singers do not break glass when they sing and all opera singers don’t weigh 900 pounds.”

Her goal is to make students see opera differently.

“I don’t expect them to go out tomorrow and buy an opera record,” she said, “but if they see it on TV, I hope they’ll stop and spend some time with it.”

 

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