Monday, 01 May 2017 09:00

Elementary Arias: Grand Rapids vocal artists, educators and students team up to create children’s opera

Written by  Samara Napolitan
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Colorful paintings line the halls of the K-12 building at the Grand Rapids Ellington Academy of Arts and Technology. Each work exists as an individual expression, made even more powerful in abundance.

A larger, collective canvas is in the works as sixth, seventh and eighth graders prepare to conceive, produce and perform their own opera during a weeklong intensive. Leading up to the May 19 performance, students at the Academy will share stories, ideas and emotions to create their own production together with Opera Grand Rapids Emerging Artists.

“I think that culture and arts are one in the same, and this school has its own culture,” said Jill Collier Warne, a cellist, teacher and leader of innovative workshops. “The opportunity to perform is so validating and an expression of identity, and that’s what we hope for with this project.”

Collier is the founder of Creative Connections, a musical immersion collective that engages musicians across the globe in short-term performance projects. Since 2009, Creative Connections has partnered with organizations like the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids to span diverse backgrounds through musical experiences. Creative Connections also works with students in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Mosaic Scholars program to compose an original piece every year for the Symphony with Soul event.

During this month’s intensive at Ellington Academy, Creative Connections is facilitating a co-collaboration among young professional vocal artists and students. The rehearsals act as a place to unearth a common vision for the composition as they brainstorm themes, respond to the social and political environment, share what inspires them and reveal their most expressive selves.

Jared Rader is one of the Emerging Artists working with the students.

“Since I’m more classically trained, I view this as an opportunity to participate in things outside of my comfort zone with the kids,” he said. “I want them to understand that it’s perfectly normal to try new things during the artistic process, especially if you really care about what you’re creating.”

The Creative Connections process stems from an egalitarian approach that reflects the contributions of all involved. Participants possess varying levels of musical knowledge and skill, but workshop leaders encourage all to embed their voice in the lyrics, melodies and rhythms that manifest in the final composition.

“The idea that someone is talented or not really shoots the arts in the foot,” said Collier. “My hope is that young people recognize the human connection that the arts can bring — that we’re all capable of creating art and everybody can participate.”

Even with a mere week to improvise and prepare a production for a live audience, Collier is confident that the experience will be rewarding for both participants and onlookers. This is due in part to the strong foundation for creative collaboration at Ellington Academy.
“The teachers really understand the importance of everyone showing up in the same space to create something together, and they have a vision and need that lines up with the project,” said Collier.

Band Director Jeff Ingraham believes that the process is what the teachers want more for their school.

“We are a school that’s working toward being focused on performing arts and technology. But like other schools, our attention is pushed toward being just another school trying to prepare for standardized testing,” he said. “Through this process, though, we can create a language for students to learn, build skills, and come up with ideas that can be integrated into the rest of their lives so they become much stronger students.”

GREAAT Children’s Opera Performance
Grand Rapids Ellington Academy of Arts and Technology
600 Burton St. SE, Grand Rapids
May 19, 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., free
operagr.org, (616) 451-2741

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