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Opera for and by Children

Lurrine Burgess knows through firsthand experience that children appreciate other forms of music besides what’s offered on MTV. For 17 years, she has produced and directed children’s opera. That’s right-- opera .

“It probably intimidates the parents more than the children,” said Burgess, who is chairwoman of the voice and opera departments at Southern California Conservatory of Music in Sun Valley. “Children can handle so much more than what we give them credit for.”

She means it. This is not only opera for children but performed exclusively by children.

On Monday, “Give Us a Star,” an original opera by Sally Wolf and Burgess based on the Grimm Brothers’ tale “The Seven Swans,” opens at the conservatory. The production, which continues through Sept. 28, features 16 performers from 8 to 12 years old.

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“It’s truly amazing what Lurrine expects from these kids. It’s even more amazing what they accomplish,” said Fernando Seminario, a Sylmar father of two children enrolled in the conservatory’s musical theater course. “There are about 14 different parts, and the children must learn all of them. They also do their own costume changes, lighting and staging. They meet twice a week at the conservatory. They practice all the time. Our home is always filled with music.”

When Burgess began teaching at the conservatory in 1971 she was asked by several parents to give their children voice lessons. She reluctantly obliged. After several years, she developed a reputation for her patience and understanding. She even worked minor miracles with children who were thought to be tone deaf by teaching them to sing on key.

Burgess also discovered that she enjoyed working with children: They had an insatiable desire to learn as well as to perform. So in 1975 she directed eight children in their first production of “Cinderella.”

“It was like opening Pandora’s box,” Burgess said. “Now we do a production every quarter. It’s a lot of work, but they walk away with so much more than just the ability to carry a tune. They blossom.”

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“My children now have the confidence to do anything in front of an audience,” said Beverly Miner of Lake View Terrace, whose 11-year-old daughter, Laura, is her third child to be under Burgess’ direction. “Since they are required to learn--and perform--all the parts, they stretch their minds and their creativity.”

This quarter’s production is really a show within a show, Burgess said. It begins with three fine-arts instructors who must find a star in their classroom of klutzes for their fairy-tale play, which is filled with enchanted swans, princesses, kings and a magic forest.

“There’s a bit of life imitating art here. In ‘Give Us a Star,’ everyone becomes the star,” Miner said. “And that’s just how Lurrine makes all her kids feel. Like they’re always shining.”

“Give Us a Star,” an opera for all ages, is performed at 7:30 p.m. Monday through Sept. 28, with a 2:30 p.m. matinee Sept. 28, at the Southern California Conservatory of Music, 8711 Sunland Blvd., Sun Valley. Tickets: $3.75 general ; $1.25 children under 12. Call (818) 767-6554.

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