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Where ‘Carmen’ is cool

Times Staff Writer

Teenagers, about 20 of them, hang together in the middle of a classroom, waiting. You can cut the lethargy with a knife. Suddenly their teacher stands up, claps her hands and shouts, “Again!” And the room comes suddenly alive with high school students singing the “Toreador March” from “Carmen.”

The teacher is Stephanie Vlahos, founder of the Full Circle Opera Project at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, or LACHSA. The students are part of a program that is the only one of its kind in the country: a public high school opera repertory company made up of teens who perform at grade and middle schools to introduce children to opera. The children are encouraged by the teenagers to be costumed and participate in the songs and production. Along with the outreach, the company stages two or three productions at LACHSA every year, like this version of the Georges Bizet opera.

As they gather in a large music room at Cal State Los Angeles, where LACHSA is located, they rehearse “Carmen,” which Vlahos has adapted and made more current. It takes place at a high school. Carmen is a very popular and charismatic high school cheerleader. She has entranced the high school outcast, the studious loner Jose, by kissing him in the locker room, and then when she dumps him for the football player, the school’s hero, Escamillo, Jose turns into an obsessive stalker type.

When Vlahos speaks, the room suddenly gets quiet, “Do not abandon the character for the song, or the song for the character,” she demands. “I don’t want bobble-heads up there!”

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Their voices again ring out strong and clear, but Vlahos cuts them off and directs them to stay in the moment. “I don’t want herds of people walking on and off stage without reason or purpose. Investigate the character you are playing. Be human beings.”

They take it from the top, and it’s evident the students have heeded the teacher’s words. The singing is bright and clear, and very intense. They nail the scene.

Operas, Vlahos says, are stories that have great value to teenagers, who are at the most fervent and impassioned time in their lives. Opera is an art form that equals their passion.

It is easy to see her message is not lost on these students.

“Stephanie makes everyone feel significant,” says Daniel Cheng, a senior who plays Escamillo. “She challenges us to take chances that we would never take on our own, and she believes we can do it, before we believe it ourselves.”

That sentiment is echoed by Albert Moran, who plays Jose: “I never thought I could do opera. My musical history is with the mariachis. My grandfather was a mariachi, and he passed it down to my mom and then to me. I’ve been singing Mexican ballads forever, and I perceived opera as something serious, something I could never do. But Stephanie taught me about the similarities of the mariachis and the tenors of opera. She really encouraged me, and I’m now a huge fan of opera.”

Vlahos, a graduate of Yale University and Julliard School, was the house mezzo-soprano at Los Angeles Opera for several years. She started the Full Circle Opera Project in 1998 as a way of bringing opera out of posh venues and into the lives of teenagers, and through the teenagers into grade and middle schools to be appreciated by children of all economic backgrounds, not just those who can afford the expensive tickets.

Grace Wall, a senior who plays Carmen, explains her outreach experience. “We give short performances and we invite the kids to work with us. It’s great to see their excitement. As we pass on what we love about opera, our own appreciation of the art is cemented. I guess that’s one of the reasons it’s called Full Circle.”

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The opera students, with the guidance of Vlahos, are staging the production. Evan Bartoletti, a professional, designed the sets and oversees the students in the construction and painting. The award-winning LACHSA student orchestra will accompany the opera.

Vlahos is concerned that the classical arts are languishing. It need not happen, she says, if we intervene and train the audiences of tomorrow, and if our approach adapts to the changing world.

“It is often the case that youth has more clarity than adulthood,” she says. “In working with these dedicated students, I realize how clear their relationship is to opera as they attempt to convey their unconventional passion for opera to their world. Their fulfillment doesn’t come in the form of a paycheck but in the discovery of the passion, the humanity and the magic of opera. We can all learn a great deal from them. I know I have.”

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About Los Angeles County High School for the Arts

he basics: The tuition-free public high school has won a number of prestigious honors, and its students have earned scholarships and awards from colleges, universities and conservatories. It has an integrated curriculum for grades 9 through 12 with instruction in the arts, including dance, music, theater, film and visual arts.

Funding: Both the high school and Full Circle Opera constantly seek public funding to stay afloat. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation selected LACHSA as one of the five best art high schools in the nation and awarded $750,000 to establish a performing arts endowment that must be matched by local donations by the year 2006; otherwise, it must be forfeited.

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To learn more: Call the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Foundation, (323) 343-2554, or visit www.lafn.org/artshigh

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‘Carmen’

Where: Luckman Theatre, Cal State Los Angeles, 5151 State University Drive, L.A.

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When: Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and

7:30 p.m.

Price: Reservations, $15

Info: (323) 343-2659

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