Braille Institute Preview : Mini-Opera Draws a Big Brrrrravo From Students

Times Staff Writer

In the mirrored room at the Braille Institute Youth Center, where the exercise mats had been rolled up and stashed away, and two aerobics bicycles had been adroitly draped with red velvet, about 20 students were bopping around on their chairs, keeping time to a really hot piece of music by a terrific young composer.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The blind and partly sighted students, ages 7 to 27, were among the first in Los Angeles to preview “Mini-Opera,” an hors d’oeuvre-sized version of the grand and real thing, pared down and bolstered up into a streamlined, palatable operatic piece that, says its producer, novelist Richard Vasquez, “knocks everybody dead . . . with beautiful music.”

And sure enough, the “Mini-Opera’s” nuts-and-bolts version of the artistic genre had the blind students trilling enthusiastic “Brrrrrrravos” at each aria--and singing as the chorus with the four principals, following the verse on yellow sheets of Braille or white large-lettered paper.

And no one was more surprised or pleased than the center’s director, Don Macnab-Stark.

“I thought we’d get three kids here--'Opera, yuck,’ ” he mimicked in imagined distaste. “I was worried--the sheer fact of it being called ‘mini-opera,’ but obviously it piqued their interest.”


It always does, says Mariko Van Kampen. She is the mini-opera’s artistic director and a soprano who discovered the idea of “Mini-Opera” as a singer in Hawaii, where it was created and used in elementary schools statewide to expose pupils to and even interest them in opera.

She brought the concept to Los Angeles where, working at Sarno’s, the opera-loving Italian restaurant in Hollywood, she met Vasquez. He loved the idea, and suggested they form the company. Now they are trying to get it adopted as part of the schools’ curriculum here, too.

“It’s not that there is anything particularly new,” said Van Kampen, who missed the Braille Institute performance; she had just given birth to a daughter the week before.

But the 40-minute fabricated story line enfolds songs from the light, satirical operas of Mozart or Gilbert and Sullivan, operas replete with mistaken identities, love concealed and love revealed. It “just takes the best of everything in the package, so they (students) learn by osmosis. They don’t feel they’re being taught.”

Which is half the battle.

The other half, the students fought for themselves. At the Braille Institute, they caught on fast. As the action opens, the four characters--Miss Soprano, Miss Alto, Mr. Tenor and Mr. Bass, all professional singers, because, as Vasquez says, “Kids know whether you have a housewife who sings in the choir or a runner-up for the Metropolitan Opera"--let the students teach themselves, asking them, for example, the difference between a play and an opera.

“I know!” shouted 7-year-old Damin Bordenave. “The opera sings the words, and the play tells the words.”

So it went: Miss Tenor (Kristin Peterson) drawing giggles as she instructively sang, “I can’t sing as high as Miss Soprano; this makes me very angry,” and warning of her wicked ways: “Today I’ll adore you, tomorrow ignore you,” giving the children music and character sketches at the same time.

Mr. Tenor (Michael Dennis), in a red-lined black cape, sang his own introduction and confessed his shy love for Miss Soprano (Connie Woodson), and Mr. Bass (William Tullis) challenged, “I can sing lower than anybody here, including you,” which brought a spirited “Huh-UH!” from a boy in the audience.

The simple story line of “Tutt’ Innamoriti (Every One in Love)” featured the components of every satirical opera: the pushy lover (Mr. Bass), the shy lover (Mr. Tenor), the woman of the world (Miss Alto), and the sweet young thing (Miss Soprano), all with music from Donizetti, Rossini, Gilbert and Sullivan and Mozart operas and all with the same happy ending.

Later, Vasquez says, when Mini-Opera catches on, they will add two story lines, one encompassing “the tragic operas where everyone gets killed” and one of “Wagnerian fantasy,” all with music that is “the cream of the crop. By the time they get all three, viewers will be ready to go into any opera and know what the climate is, with an absolute minimum of lecture,” said Vasquez, who spent some years in France and was amazed to realize that “there are 25 or 30 opera companies in Paris and none in Los Angeles.”

As part of the mini-opera “schtick,” a student in the front row took a note that Miss Soprano handed him, Miss Alto snatched it away, and when Miss Soprano asked who had taken it, one boy shrieked, “The fat girl!”

That, says Vasquez, is precisely the response they want. “They get utterly involved. There are other opera programs going into the schools now, but I’m still convinced, judging by the reactions we’re getting, mini-opera is the best vehicle.”

After such a rousing performance, the questions were intense: “How do you do it without paper?” asked one. (“It’s like homework--you take it home and memorize it, like your times tables.”) “Do operas always have a happy ending?” asked Damin. (“No,” Mr. Bass answered, “there are many sad operas. In Tosca, everybody dies. The heroine jumps off the roof.”)

Afterward, a beaming Vasquez told the students, “I bet after you’ve heard this you’ll never again listen to that punk rock, will you?”

He already had at least one convert. Tina Thomas, 16, doesn’t “really like all that punk rock stuff. Sometimes I can’t even understand what they’re saying. Opera, you can sit down and listen to. This was great!”

Later, over juice and cookies, Woodson and student Bobby Smith, 17, exchanged funny voices: Popeye characters, dogs, chickens. “We oughta have our own opera!” Smith crowed. As for the performance, “I thought it was really good. I like hearing operas with a chorus, but it sounds a lot nicer when there’s just four people. You can hear it clearer.

“But me? I listen to new wave.”