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Santa Fe Children Get Into the Act of Opera

Magnificent is not too grand a word to describe the Santa Fe Opera Company's recent "gift to the city": a full-scale production of composer Benjamin Britten's "Noah's Flood."

The opera involves a chorus of 75 children with a youth orchestra including bugles, hand bells, and recorders - all staged on a massive wooden ark beneath the high, beamed ceiling of Santa Maria de la Paz, Santa Fe's newest Catholic church. The opera, derived from a medieval passion play, was intended to be performed in a church; Santa Maria de la Paz, a large New Mexican mission-style building with a spacious nave, is ideal.

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It's rare that production values of such a high order are provided to a community performance in which children are the primary participants. But the Santa Fe Opera, an internationally respected company, wanted to offer something special in celebration of its 40th anniversary.

"We could have put up banners and balloons all over town and said 'whoopee,' " explains Richard Gaddes, associate general director of the Santa Fe Opera and producer of "Noah's Flood." "But we decided instead to give something back to the community since, after all, the community is the reason we got here in the first place."

Although "Noah's Flood" represents the most extravagant effort in terms of time and money that the opera has committed to community outreach, its education program for young people has been building momentum for several years.

"Three years ago, the [Opera] Guild decided to give children a hands-on appreciation of opera, and that's how it started," explains Andrea Fellows Walters, who coordinates the outreach program. She admits, however, that the beginning was a struggle. "The opera was just an institution sitting on a hill outside of town. We weren't part of anything."

Initially, the outreach program exposed young people to opera through "Opera Mosaic," which performs selected pieces of operas in schools across New Mexico, and "Youth Night at the Opera," which offers discounted tickets to anyone under 18 years of age.

But the current emphasis of the program is participation - children actually creating or performing in operas. To that end, the opera has sponsored workshops for Santa Fe and Pueblo Indian schoolteachers.

"Some teachers have come back several times to our workshops until they really grasp the content," Ms. Walters says. "Then they start working with children."

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Last year, five student-produced operas were performed in area elementary schools and also at the opera facility. The operas ranged from a stunning pageant of American history to an original folk tale, complete with student mariachi players and youthful native American drummers.

Multiculturalism has also been a strong element of "Noah's Flood," according to Mr. Gaddes. "I doubt there's ever been a 'Noah's Flood' with both native American and Hispanic children on stage," he says.

Even the costumes for the propmen (striped black and white outfits and face paint) are clearly drawn from the native American koshari, religious figures who appear in Pueblo dances. The propmen, who play a pivotal, although silent, part in the performance by weaving together the action, were selected from teenagers participating in a local theater group that targets at-risk young people.

Cookie Jordan, director of the Theater Residency Project (TRP) that trained the teens, has been very impressed by their participation in "Noah's Flood." "They showed real focus, absolute attention," she says.

Ms. Jordan has also been pleased by the opera's previous efforts to involve TRP youngsters in its productions. She notes that one young propman who was flunking out of school was cast in the "The Rake's Progress" last summer. But Jordan adds with a smile, "Now he's making straight A's."

She attributes his turnaround to seeing all the actors, staff people, and singers working so hard. "He thought he could be an actor just by hanging out, but now he knows differently."

The teenagers were the oldest performers aside from Noah and his wife, who were performed by professional singers Michael Krueger and Jean Kraft. The entire animal kingdom consists of 70 young children entering the center of the nave two by two. Squirrels, wolves, polecats, ravens, hummingbirds, deer, giraffes, leopards, and goats are all represented with brightly colored papier-mch masks, created during the summer by other children. The massive logistics of the production requires 15 adults designated as "animal wranglers" just to get the kids on and off the stage on cue.

Gaddes sums up, "I think we have the opportunity to have an impact that will last a lifetime." And, he adds, "What else, really, should we be doing?"

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