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Entertainment & Arts

Ojai Youth Opera: Like ‘Glee’ for the kid who’s hooked on Britten and Bernstein

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Kyra Maal King, center, and an unidentified Ojai Youth Opera participant rehearse “Brundibar” in 2017. The company presents its new production this weekend.
(Kevin King)

This isn’t “High School Musical.”

No, the members of this young company — from 7-year-old moppets all the way up to assured 18-year-olds — say things like: “I think a lot of people can agree that once the opera bug bites, it doesn’t let go.”

That comment came from Christopher Gutierrez, 15, a member of Ojai Youth Opera. He plays Prophet in the company’s first original production, “Nightingale and the Tower,” to be performed at Libbey Bowl in Ojai this weekend.

Opera is “a transformative experience that I love very much,” said Gutierrez, an L.A. native who attends the Villanova Preparatory boarding school in Ojai and serves as a Los Angeles Opera ambassador, meaning he gets a mini-subscription in exchange for helping the company in administrative work and audience outreach.

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Performing is another thing entirely. The first notes of Ojai Youth Opera sounded in 2012. Rebecca Comerford, a singer and actress, had just moved to Ojai with experience in youth and community engagement with the Metropolitan Opera Guild in New York. With the patronage of local resident Smitty West, she started a summer opera workshop for kids.

The workshop expanded in size and ambition every year, drawing kids from around the world, and in 2014 it evolved into what she said is the first autonomous youth opera theater in the U.S. In 2017 Ojai Youth Opera put on its first full-scale production, “Brundibár,” a 1938 Czech opera originally performed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp at Terezin.

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Kaylie Turner in an earlier year's Ojai Youth Opera summer camp.
(Kevin King)

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According to Comerford, finding or drawing young opera lovers to a small town like Ojai is no problem. Kaylie Turner, 18, grew up here and has been doing the workshop for years.

“A lot of opera’s written so long ago,” said Kaylie, who plays Nightingale, “yet people still can be transformed by a story that they have no idea what context it’s coming from or a word of what was said.”

Another Ojai native, Arshan Barati, 11, plays Teo, the wheelchair-using protagonist of “Nightingale.” He’s been singing in the workshops since he was 6 after initially being “shoved in” by his parents.

“It was the first few days of opera camp that I was kind of iffy about it,” Arshan said, “then after getting it going, I was like: I really want to do this. This is fun.”

Asked if his schoolmates think his interest in an art form that’s more than 400 years old is weird, he said: “Well, they’re always saying to me, like, ‘Stop singing! Don’t practice your opera in school!’ But I think they respect that I like opera.”

It all comes down to exposure, Comerford said. “I mean, if I can get kids in the Bronx to sing back a chorus of ‘Carmen’ with me — and be like up on their feet dancing and clapping and giving an ovation — then I think it’s not that hard to find kids that are interested.”

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More of an issue, she said, is finding suitable work.

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“It was really hard for me to find repertoire that was age-appropriate, pedagogically appropriate, that fit their voices,” she said. “And there was so little of it out there that I thought, well, what about creating narratives and stories that they identify with?”

So Ojai Youth Opera, with a grant from the city, commissioned its first work. Comerford wrote the libretto for “Nightingale,” an English-language fantasy concerned with the ways omnipresent technology is affecting us. The libretto follows a story she created with Mikael Jorgensen, a member of the band Wilco who lives in Ojai with his family.

The composer was Jason Treuting, a member of So Percussion and a college friend of Comerford’s. “Nightengale” is his first opera, and he tailored it to the young performers.

“Finding out where their level is is really interesting,” Treuting said. “Because it’s further along than a lot of 16-year-olds would be. You know, I think it’s very different than writing a high school musical or something like that. These are folks that are really dedicated to this tradition and this art. But their voices and their stamina and their approach, aren’t as refined as a lot of the professionals I’ve worked with.”

That didn’t stop him from including crazy time signatures and polyrhythms.

“I’m like, ‘OK, guys, we’re going to have to dance it out!’” Comerford said, laughing. “It takes them longer to maybe get it into their bodies. Some of them don’t even read music that well.”

The company isn’t trying to be a pre-professional academy, she said, although Comerford identified at least three singers who very well could go pro.

“To me, it’s not about whether or not they all become opera singers,” she said. “It’s about having a deeper appreciation and sense of what the art form is and carrying the torch forward. Hopefully I’m giving them techniques so that, whether they sing musical theater or jazz or R&B, whatever, they have a solid technique that can take them anywhere.”

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Christopher and Kaylie are considering going into opera as singers or as administrative staff with a focus on reaching young audiences.

“It has to be from us; it has to be from the youth,” Christopher said. “They have to get hooked, and they have to put in the effort.”

As for Arshan: “I do want to pursue opera and music in general,” he said. “Not sure if I want to pursue it as like dedicating my entire life to it yet, because ... I am only 11 years old.”

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‘Nightingale & the Tower’

Where: Libbey Bowl, 202 Signal St., Ojai

When: 8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Tickets: $20-$150

Info: ojaiyouthopera.org

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