Billy Hepner was hanging like a monkey from the railing along the stairs leading down to the concert hall.
"We're going to sing an opera!" the 5-year-old announced.
"And tell us again what an opera is?" prompts a grown-up.
"I don't know," said Billy. "But it has a moose."
On Sunday afternoon, with professional singers, musicians and their mommies and their daddies, Billy and about 200 other children made their operatic debuts in the Los Angeles Opera's production of "Les Moose."
Bullwinkle--a moose, baritone.
Rocky--a flying squirrel, soprano.
Boris--world's greatest no-goodnik, baritone.
Natasha--Boris' partner in crime, soprano.
Chorus--Billy and friends.
The show opens with a musical homage to its leading man--that is to say, moose.
"No animal's as noble as the moose. His character just cannot be improved.
"So if you're looking for a faithful friend, it behooves you to be sure that he is hooved."
Alan Chapman, who was commissioned by the L.A. Opera to write words and music for this highly democratic, full-participation opera, is sitting 10 rows back with 3-year-old daughter Molly on his lap. Between songs, she claps her hands and pats her father on the head.
It is the Junior Opera Project's Family Day at the Opera, an effort to develop new and younger audiences for opera. The event, staged at the Colburn School of Performing Arts, was open to any kid who wanted to sing along, although the four principal roles were sung by opera pros.
Chapman's "Les Moose: Operatic Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" is the story of the two heroes' valiant efforts to keep a secret mooseberry juice rocket formula hidden from the dastardly spies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale.
There was only time for one full rehearsal before the show opened Sunday to a select audience of relatives, friends and members of the Junior Opera Project. Wearing cutout paper antlers they had decorated with crayons, confetti, pompoms and feathers, children from 3 to 13 sat down cross-legged on one side of the stage to make their way through the libretto.
"Ya know what ya have to do before ya sing is take a big ol' opera breath," instructed maestro Daniel Bridston. A towheaded kindergartner named Julia opened her mouth wide, closed her eyes to suck in that big breath and . . . yawned.
Nicole, 5, and her friend Morgan, also 5, ignored the breathing exercise to carry on their spirited debate over the relative merits of the two leads.
"I love Bullwinkle because I love mooses, that's why," said Nicole.
"But squirrels fly. So there," said Morgan.
On stage, Rocky is the modest gal (oh, you didn't know Rocky was a girl?) behind her guy.
"Behind every moose there is a squirrel," sings Rocky diva Karen Benjamin, "to lend a paw no matter when or where. When a moose finds himself in any peril, see me fly through the sky to be there!"
For 8-year-olds Maya Johnson and Tomora Wright and Tomora's little sister Danielle, 7, there was also a strong feminist message to be found in this latest Rocky and Bullwinkle adventure. Not only did Boris take out the garbage when Natasha told him to, the slinky Russian sleuth also was an articulate spokeswoman-role model for the cause of "equal opportunity in espionage."
As Natasha puts it, "Why must a spy be a guy?"
Their one and only rehearsal was almost over when the maestro--addressed by one polite child as "Mister Maestro"--called the children to attention for an important announcement from producer Llewellyn Crain.
"If there is anyone in this room who needs to go to the bathroom or get a drink . . ."
All the little opera singers raised their hands.
"Oh, well," Crain said. "Better go."
Quinn Montgomery, 5, who began the day in tears after realizing that he wasn't going to the opera but was going to be in the opera, retired to his mother's side, where he sipped disconsolately from a dark green bottle of Ole Italian spring water. But when the children return to their places on stage, Quinn sat down on his knees and began to silently mouth his chorus refrain, tapping out the beat on his thigh.
The opera lasted all of 30 minutes, the ending was happy (world peace is at hand), and the audience shouted, "Bravo!"
As the younger children rushed to pick up their apres opera cookies and juice, Jake Coleman, one of the cast's elders at age 9 1/4, pondered the lesson of the day's experience.
"Well, you can definitely say after watching this that opera is not boring. You could even say that sometimes the songs are really funny and the characters are quite a bit of fun. Yes," he added, taking a delicate bite of cookie, "fun."