Education

For SoCal kids at this summer camp, opera's an out-of-body experience

LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from "Then I Stood Up: A Civil Rights Cycle" at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2015. Besides attending intensive rehearsals, the students also take in backstage tours, lectures, and museum field trips to learn about the story behind the pieces they perform.
Susanica Tam/KPCC
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from
Nine-year-old Flora White, one of the youngest participants, sits at a rehearsal during the LA Opera Camp at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
Susanica Tam/KPCC
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from
Stage director Eli Villanueva (center) works with students at LA Opera Camp on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
Susanica Tam/KPCC
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from
Children ages 9-17 rehearsing during LA Opera Camp at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, Calif. on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2015. Besides intensive rehearsals, the students also have backstage tours, lectures, and field trips to museums to learn about the story behind the pieces that they perform.
Susanica Tam/KPCC
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from
Golda Berkman, center, goes over notes with Leslie Stevens, movement coordinator and librettist, while Elyse Johnson watches a group rehearsing at the LA Opera Camp on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2015
Susanica Tam/KPCC
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from "Then I Stood Up: A Civil Rights Cycle" at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
Susanica Tam/KPCC
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from
Kirk Graves demonstrates the uses of dry ice for special effects to an audience of LA Opera Camp students in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015.
Susanica Tam/KPCC
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from
Students touch the foam props, fake weapons and faux broken glass shown by Kirk Graves, left, during a workshop at LA Opera Camp on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015 in Los Angeles.
Susanica Tam/KPCC
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from "Then I Stood Up: A Civil Rights Cycle" at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2015. Besides intensive rehearsals, the students also take backstage tours, lectures, and field trips to museums to learn about the story behind the pieces they perform.
Susanica Tam/KPCC
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from
Kirk Graves teaches a workshop for LA Opera students on film and theater props, on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015.
Susanica Tam/KPCC
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from
Karen Hogle Brown conducts a rehearsal for a piece from "Then I Stood Up: A Civil Rights Cycle," performed by students in Opera Camp at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
Susanica Tam/KPCC
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from
Students Enzo Grappone, Jamie Felix-Toll and Flora White attend a workshop to learn about props used in movies and operas. Opera isn't just about "big people with big voices" or the stereotypical "singing with lots of vibrato," said Grappone and Felix-Toll.
Susanica Tam/KPCC
LA Opera Camp participants rehearse a piece from
Gloria Lopez Enriquez (right) speaks with fellow parents about what their kids are learning at Opera Camp in Los Angeles on Wednesday Aug. 5, 2015. She and her 17-year old son, Ernesto, came from San Diego to participate in the two-week intensive camp.
Susanica Tam/KPCC


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Kids all around Southern California swarmed to camps this summer — computer camp, science camp, acting camp.

Then there's Opera Camp, a two-week immersion in all things opera run by the LA Opera. In the rehearsal rooms under the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles, students age 9 to 17 practice operatic singing, absorb lessons in opera history and social justice, and learn the ins and outs of stage production.

It's tough to get in; on opening day for Opera Camp registration this year, about 180 applicants signed up for the limited 55 spots. 

“The first year we did this we really had to kind of go knocking on doors and recruiting kids," said Stacy Brightman, head of LA Opera’s education department who helped launch Opera Camp back in 2001. "And lo these many years later, the demand for it, the thrilling demand for it, seems to be surging.” 

Interest in the camp is rising as professional opera houses have been struggling. In 2008, Orange County's Opera Pacific closed down, a victim of a bad economy at the time and inadequate financial support. And last year, San Diego Opera nearly folded, saved by major donors after a leadership shakeup.

So how to explain the demand for Opera Camp?

Brightman believes kids come to opera without the preconceptions that often keep grownups away.

“It's an easier sell for a kid than it is for an adult,” she said. Hearing a performance in Italian, for example, doesn't intimidate kids in the same way it can with adults.

About one-third of students attend the camp on scholarship. For those who can afford it, the camp costs $500. About a third of the spots are held for students from low-income families. Others interested are selected by lottery, according to Brightman. 

'Completely out-of-body experience'

Ask 11-year-old opera camper Jamie Felix-Toll what kind of music he listens to and he says: “I'm not afraid to say it. I really like Taylor Swift. I like her music.” Jamie also likes opera. LA Opera's General Director Plácido Domingo is one of his favorite singers. 

“It's super fun. But it's also very difficult and you have to focus,”Jamie said of singing opera.

Flora White, 9 years old, is another opera fan and a fellow camper. “It's not just like: 'Ahhh...',” she said, belting out a high note. “It can be different styles.”

At a recent practice session, LA Opera camp conductor and opera singer Karen Hogle Brown worked with older students on their singing techniques.

She urged them to punch out keywords in the lyrics. After a few practice tries, they put it all together, and their singing comes alive, full and energetic.

Listen: Campers practice on a song from their opera production, “Then I Stood Up."

The practice is in preparation for a series of performances this weekend when the students will perform a newly commissioned piece called “Then I Stood Up” at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Hollywood. Tickets are free and available at the theater

For some students, it will be the first time singing for an audience. For others, including 16-year-old Golda Berkman, the show is another in an already accomplished list of appearances.

She said everyone should take in opera, and hopes young people in particular will give it a try.

“It just feels like a completely out-of-body experience. It feels like the whole stage, everything. Time is still, in the moment,” she said.