L.A. Opera, other music companies play to youth


As the crew checks the lighting and the lead singers relax in the wings, Los Angeles Opera director Eli Villanueva zeros in on a weak spot he noticed during the just-completed rehearsal.
“You girls are looking good,” he says as he joins a cluster of chorus members.
They beam at him.
“But in that last scene we need a little more attitude.”
They stare blankly.
Villanueva tries a different approach. “You know when you’re in line for tetherball and someone cuts in front of you? How do you feel?”
Faces darken and shoulders tighten menacingly.
“That’s it!” Villanueva cries. “That’s what we want.”
Clearly, this is a director who knows how to motivate his cast -- in this case, fourth-graders at Rockdale Elementary School in Eagle Rock. Villanueva and his colleagues are helping students put on “The Marriage of Figueroa,” a whimsical blend of Mozart and California history, as part of an L.A. Opera program designed to teach the basics of opera and performance in a language children understand.
“You can’t describe art to someone. You have to let them experience it,” says Stacy Brightman, the company’s director of education and community programs. “If I can get a kid singing alongside a professional opera singer, feeling that joy of singing a story, I know I’ve got that kid for life.”

For many orchestral and choral organizations, youth outreach no longer means traditional (read: boring) concerts in which a conductor lectures the crowd then plunges into a selection of chestnuts. “That may have been enough when we had a culture in which music education was more deeply woven into the fabric of schools and families,” says Pamela Blaine, vice president of education and community programs for the Pacific Symphony in Orange County. “But now we have to do more.”

Today, programs are interactive and interdisciplinary. “Children learn by doing and they learn in different ways -- visual, musical, emotional and physical,” says Jessica Balboni, director of the Orchestra Leadership Academy of the League of American Orchestras. “They also learn best through relationships.” In the last decade, she says, “ the idea of a one-off show with one contact point” has been replaced by “civic engagement -- where we establish sustainable relationships with children, schools and community.”

Arts groups, for instance, have struggled for years to fill gaps caused by classroom budget cuts. “We’ve evolved,” Balboni says. “Now, we’re working with the schools to bring added value and we’re trying to help students grow in other areas too. It’s all about being more creative and relevant.”

Young people’s concerts still exist, but they often are conceived as multifaceted theatrical events. Companies use open rehearsals and mentorships to erase barriers between artists and audiences in the belief that kids respond to experiences and role models they can relate to.

Which brings us to Gustavo Dudamel. The new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is 28, charismatic and a product of El Sistema, the Venezuelan youth orchestra-social movement that has transformed hundreds of thousands of lives and inspired a wave of similar ventures by the Philharmonic and other orchestras. Helping children is one of Dudamel’s priorities -- a point made clear with his family-friendly debut concert in October.

Balboni says the maestro is giving a big boost to an already robust outreach community made up of large and small companies from Claremont to Long Beach. “L.A. is quite progressive and sophisticated in how it engages kids,” says Balboni, who worked for the Philharmonic before she joined the league in 2007. “Gustavo Dudamel is building on a good foundation of cultural organizations with a strong track record.”

Here’s a look at how four of those organizations, including the Philharmonic, innovate, engage, sustain and in other ways exemplify leading trends in music education.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

The Philharmonic has long been known for its commitment to kids. The Phil spends $4.5 million a year on education, including school and youth orchestra partnerships, high school composer fellowships, Hollywood Bowl summer sessions for the 9-and-under set, family and student concerts and the El Sistema-inspired initiative Youth Orchestra LA.

“Gustavo’s arrival provides extra opportunities to raise visibility and extend our reach beyond our previous scope,” says Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn.

Balboni agrees: “In the arts education field we say, ‘Oh my God,’ when we see the opportunity at the Phil for music education to be integrated at the highest level because of Gustavo Dudamel and the resources they have.”

As an example, the Toyota Symphonies for Youth family concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall combine ambitious content and high-end production values. Gretchen Nielsen, the orchestra’s director of educational initiatives, says subscribers snap up so many tickets that the four-concert package is one of “the Philharmonic’s most sold-out series.”

Just as it does with adult audiences, the Philharmonic exposes children to music old and new. Classics come with a twist -- Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” is presented with projections and puppetry that transport the tale from a Russian forest to urban L.A. Perhaps only the Phil would attempt a minimalism-for-kids show with works by John Adams, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Another concert featured former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Wing on Wing.”

“Some of this music may seem challenging,” Nielsen says, “but for the young it’s almost like listening to Beethoven. It’s all new to them, so we can take risks.”

Youth Orchestra LA, in which the Phil and public and private partners start ensembles in underserved areas, is one of the nation’s major models of El Sistema-style instruction. The first group, the YOLA EXPO Center Youth Orchestra, was launched in 2007 at the EXPO Center community facility near the Coliseum in collaboration with the center and the Harmony Project, which provides music programs for at-risk youth. Membership has swelled from 80 to 225 children ages 6 to 17 -- prompting the creation of a second ensemble. Another YOLA site will be announced this year.

Nielsen says YOLA has benefited from strong support from El Sistema and its most famous former student. As hectic as his schedule is, Dudamel has made time to work with the EXPO Center musicians, including conducting them at his inaugural concert.

Pacific Symphony

The Pacific Symphony believes in starting early. “Our emphasis is on the young grades and families,” Pamela Blaine says.

The orchestra develops relationships between its musicians and elementary school students, teachers and parents through the Class Act partnerships, a series of campus lessons and performances that culminate in children attending a spring symphony concert at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

Musical Storytime enables kids ages 4 to 7 to tell tales through musical activities with the help of musicians from the Symphony and its youth ensembles and instructors versed in the philosophy of composer-educator Carl Orff, who believed singing, dancing and keeping a beat were among the best ways to learn music.

While the Phil ponders topics like minimalism, the Pacific Symphony’s Family Musical Mornings are charming, comfy and sometimes campy. In the Halloween “Spooktacular,” assistant conductor Maxim Eshkenazy battled an evil ghost. Next up in February is “SuperHeroes.”

Older children can join middle and high school ensembles including the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra or attend a summer camp for seventh- and eighth-grade arts buffs.

The Symphony spends about $1.7 million on education -- 10% of its annual operating budget. Like other organizations, it tries to offer assistance to keep fees affordable so it can serve a wide range of schools. Though many of its youth orchestra members continue to play in college, Blaine says, “our goal is not necessarily getting into Peabody or Juilliard. We just want children to love music.”

Los Angeles Master Chorale

While other organizations focus on performing and listening, the Los Angeles Master Chorale helps kids create and collaborate. In its Voices Within residency program, artists, composers and lyricists teach fifth- and sixth-graders to write songs that they then present in a school concert with the Master Chorale Chamber Singers. “You can see lives impacted and light bulbs go on,” says music director Grant Gershon. “It really is about finding your voice.”

The Master Chorale devotes $250,000 -- 7% of its annual budget -- to education, which includes Voices Within, performances and classes by the Chamber Singers and an annual high school choir festival at Disney Hall.

During the 10-week songwriting workshops, students learn to create words and then music for topics they might study in class (the periodic table, L.A. landmarks). Research includes field trips and collaborations with institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art. The composer generates sheet music for the students to practice and arrangements for the Chamber Singers’ eight members.

“We want songs to be ‘triggers’ as opposed to being ‘about something,’ ” says Voices Within artistic director Marnie Mosiman, who started the program nine years ago. She says hearing children share dreams and secrets “makes you see the importance of long-term interaction as opposed to busing someone in for a performance.”

One student with big dreams is Gustavo Uvaldo Orozco. After writing songs last year as a fifth-grader at First Street Elementary School in East Los Angeles, Gustavo was chosen to appear with a Voices Within choir at a Master Chorale concert at Disney Hall last month. “He didn’t have transportation, but he really wanted to do it,” Mosiman says. “So he would call me and I went and picked him up.”

Gustavo says he was determined to sing because “we were in the most famous concert hall in the world and it’s where Gustavo Dudamel, who is one of my idols, is.” Besides, he says, “if I can put that I sang at Disney Hall with the L.A. Master Chorale, it may help me get a good job.” He wants to be an architect, he adds, “but if I keep working hard maybe I can sing in the actual Master Chorale too.”

Los Angeles Opera

“The Marriage of Figueroa” wowed Rockdale Elementary. The story of an Early California governor who learns the dangers of greed by watching a Mozart opera had enough arias, action and, yes, attitude to delight kids in the audience and onstage.

The tale -- one of several mini-operas in the residency’s repertoire -- was created by Villanueva and his brother, LeRoy, who starred as Figueroa/Figaro (both Eli and LeRoy are baritones with extensive stage careers). The fall production included a professional music ensemble, scenery and lighting. The students formed the chorus. Veteran singers played the leads.

“I want to generate enthusiasm for opera and get kids involved in developing a performance,” says Eli Villanueva. During the nearly two-month session, he also tackles practical matters such as shyness and short attention spans. “If it’s fun and they get a taste of Mozart, the next time they hear it they might recognize a few passages. It’s a big first step.”

Other education programs include Opera Tales for toddlers at county libraries and a high school essay competition in which winners receive mini-subscriptions and behind-the-scenes access. For regular-season productions, the company offers free student matinees.

L.A. Opera has a $1.2-million education and community budget, says Stacy Brightman, who adds that she and her colleagues are preparing for this year’s Ring Festival L.A. Whether it’s Wagner or “High School Musical,” she says, “the fundamental idea is narrative and music go together. That makes complete sense to kids.”