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Stepping Up Music Appreciation

The Dundalk Eagle
Reprinted by permission of The Dundalk Eagle.

Stepping up music appreciation Sandy Plains students test operatic voices

by Christina Radice

Getting children enthused to go to the opera seems hard enough. Teaching them to actually sing arias approaches the impossible.

But Yvette Lewis does it. Really well.

The opera singer and former schoolteacher spent six days at Sandy Plains Elementary over the past two weeks doing her thing.

For the past 10 years, Lewis has introduced children to the musical art form through her self-developed program, “So This is Opera.”

“The children are really loving it, and Ms. Lewis is just amazing,” said art teacher Jenny O’Flaherty last week as she watched three first-grade classes practice with the singer. “This is so special to have somebody like this here at the school.”

In July a group of teachers attended the Maryland State Arts Council’s seminar at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., where Lewis performed and conducted a workshop on how educators can incorporate opera into their curricula.

“We knew we wanted to have her as soon as we saw her,” said Sandy Plains reading teacher and arts coordinator Stephanie Kimmons.

The focus at Sandy Plains this year is reading, Kimmons said, and part of the school’s plan was to invite two artists-in-residence to further integrate the arts into drama and poetry.

The Maryland State Arts Council grants money to pay for half of Lewis’s cost, but the schools are responsible for the rest. At Sandy Plains, the PTA raised $1,250 for the cause.

Lewis, who grew up in North Carolina and now lives in Columbia, Md., began singing opera when she was 16. She majored in voice and music education at Howard University in Washington. After graduating, she taught in Baltimore City, then Montgomery County, then spent her evenings singing with the Baltimore and Washington opera companies, where she still performs.

“But no one was doing opera for kids,” Lewis said, explaining why she created her program, adding that she was unwilling to give up teaching or singing. “This is the best of both worlds.”

She teaches at about 10 schools a year and averages almost 200 performances for kids annually. The territory she’s covered includes Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., Virginia, North and South Carolina and even upstate New York.

Through “So This is Opera,” Lewis tells students the story of an opera, shows them videos to help them understand it and teaches them selected arias. She also developed a curriculum that has students involved in other activities, such as research about the opera, when they are not under her instruction. Finally, they give a performance of what they’ve learned. Last Thursday, Sandy Plains students prepared with Lewis for in-school performances they held the next day and a concert for parents in the evening. “Somebody’s been eating my soup! … Someone’s been sleeping in my bed!” the tiny first-graders sang in high-pitched voices while matching hand motions with the lyrics.

They were rehearsing the original operetta that Lewis developed from Robert Fiske’s The Three Bears. The third through fifth grades studied selections from The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, Madame Butterfly, Carmen and Tales of Hoffmann and even learned songs in French, Italian and German. “They are great and so enthusiastic,” Lewis said of the students. “And unbelievably appreciative.”

The enthusiasm was evident as the students gathered in the cafeteria Friday to show off their new talent. They whispered loudly to one another, trying to hush their excitement as they eagerly waited to perform.

“I’m feeling a little sad because this is our last time,” Lewis told the group. “But I want you to get up on stage and show off what you can do.” And they sang away, mouths wide open and bopping to the thumping piano, working out the kinks for their appearance before almost 400 parents who would watch them that night.

Some students clanked on bell sets in accompaniment, not always in sync with the beat, and some struggled to reach the music’s higher notes. Nonetheless, these elementary schoolers can now say they’ve sung opera. Can you?


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