Most people associate opera with the diva’s high notes, but some classics require the voice of a child. So when Puccini’s much loved La Bohème opened the Fort Worth Opera Festival last weekend (it repeats Sunday), 16 kids took the stage alongside Rodolpho and Mimi.
When the loudspeaker sounds for places, members of the La Bohème children’s chorus hit pause on their dressing room hubbub for a split second to make sure they aren’t needed on stage. But that call was for Act 1, which means they’ve got another hour or so for homework, and a little horsing around.
Instead of dinner, studying and TV, these Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts kids follow a very different evening routine. We caught up with them during a piano dress rehearsal, which requires sharp concentration and full costumes.
“If you’re not focused then you’re going to end up getting sloppy, and everything’s really precise,” says 12-year-old Victoria Perez.
Victoria is serious about her role in the opera. Act 2 is a wild street scene in the Latin Quarter of Paris on Christmas Eve, and the kid singers are an integral part of the colorful chaos.
“We’re just a bunch of kids trying to get our parents to buy things for us during Christmas and we see a lot of stuff from these vendors like candy and oranges and chestnuts and hot cocoa,” Victoria explains.
And that means a lot of people onstage at the same time, singing many different parts. Andrew Coffey, 11, wasn’t prepared for what that would sound like.
“When we started blocking it since we were not anything as loud as the other professionals, we were just kind of blown away and it was scary,” Andrew says.
And if you’ve ever heard the grand Act 2 entrance, you know why Andrew was a little unsure.
But the Fort Worth Opera’s associate conductor and chorus master, Stephen Dubberly, says those early-day nerves are a thing of the past.
“Getting them to hold their own and to be proud of getting to compete with the adults has been really a lot of fun and they’re not in any way intimidated now,” he says.
Which is a good thing, because there’s a child solo in Act 2. And 11-year-old Kaleb Johnson knows just how important it is to stay cool.
“I just have to gain more confidence in that area.” he says. “Right as it’s coming up, builds up, don’t get too excited or you actually will go sharp.”
Being part of a professional opera takes tremendous patience and attention to detail. The children have to master Italian pronunciations and dialect. They have to know their music cold and connect with what they’re singing. And at the end of all this, Stephen Dubberly hopes their experience with La Bohème will turn 16 kids into 16 lifelong opera lovers.
“So much of what we have to do in our mission, and it’s what happened to all of us who do love opera, is realize that its not something stuffy and foreign, it’s just acting and singing at its very best,” Dubberly says.
But he doesn’t need to worry; these kids are sold. They may only be 11 and 12 years old, but they know magic on stage when they see it, and they know the electrifying power of opera when they hear it.
“And I hope I can be in the next opera because this has been a wonderful experience,” Andrew Coffey says.
For Andrew and his 15 pals, it’s been a true high note.