The lights dim, the crowd's murmur softens. "The Barber of Seville" is about to begin. But instead of the diamond and black-tie opulence usually found in opera halls, the audience at this matinee sports T-shirts and dangles sneakered feet over the plush carpeting.
It's "Figaro meets the peanut-butter set" -and it's clear that this bubbly group of elementary and middle school students from around New England is excited to make the acquaintance.
"I really want to see it," says Sidney Baptista, a sixth-grader at The Epiphany School in Dorchester, Mass., as classmates nod their heads in agreement before the show. "I've never been [to an opera] before. I heard that they act and sing at the same time."
For several decades, Opera New England has performed classics like "The Magic Flute" by Mozart and "Hansel and Gretel" by Engelbert Humperdinck in ways that preserve artistic integrity but inspire kids to use phrases like "very emotional" or "better than TV" to describe them.
Sparking enthusiasm in the arts is the aim of many US schools and private organizations, which are redoubling efforts to expose students to often-bypassed cultural experiences.
"There's a great deal of evidence that arts curriculum not only produces children who do better in arts, but kids who have better moral standards, better test scores, better scores in science and math, and better conduct," says Linda Black, chairwoman of Opera New England, the educational arm of the Boston Lyric Opera. "You get them focused on a wider world."
Ms. Black, whose group has performed in New England for about 25 years and averages 30 to 40 shows each year, says most of the children who've descended on the Strand Theatre for this midday performance are first-time opera goers.
The performance begins with Count Almaviva, a young nobleman, falling in love with the beautiful Rosina. He watches her through the window and serenades her from below the balcony. But she is the ward of the possessive Dr. Bartolo, who becomes vehemently determined to marry her. The Count tells Figaro, the town barber, of his love for Rosina, and the clever barber arranges to sneak the Count into the house so they can meet.
Students remain as focused on the show as the Count is on winning Rosina's love. The theater is so silent you could hear a pin drop - except, of course, each time Figaro bursts on stage, prompting beams of excitement and some applause.
After a series of plot twists and turns, the couple manages to outwit the doctor and marry. Kids react to the final kissing scene with "oohs," "aahs," and a few snickers - as well as positive reviews.
Oh, the suspense
"I thought that operas were all about singing and there was no emotion. My favorite part was when he was outside the window singing to her. It had a lot of emotion...." says Chris Hary, a seventh-grader at The Leonard J. Tyl Middle School in Oakdale, Conn., who says "Barber" is the first opera he's ever seen. "It was like a TV show because you didn't know what was going to happen next."
Black says the company tends to pick stories that would appeal to younger audiences. It takes original operas, translates them into English, simplifies them, and trims them to an hour, she adds. The $7-per-student ticket price is only a fraction of what it would cost to attend a full opera, making it an appealing field trip.
But more important, teachers and students say the life lessons and culture and history woven into entertaining plots make live opera an appealing alternative to learning in classrooms.
John Finley, head of The Epiphany School, says the performance supports his mission "to get kids to live up to their full potentials." His free private school is attended by children from mostly low-income families who rarely brush with the arts.
"A lot of these kids go home, watch TV, and play video games," Mr. Finley says. "The idea is to get them excited about music, give them a sense of opportunities available in the city ... to broaden their culture. You want them to show up in life.... Show them there's something worth showing up for."
Important messages in "The Barber of Seville," written by Gioacchini Rossini, are equality and opportunity, Mr. Finley adds. Weeks before the performance, his students learned about them as they studied the opera's history.
"I think that's an important part of the plot, that Figaro is black [in this production], a member of the servant class, and intelligent," Black says. The opera was revolutionary during its 1816 debut because servants played background comedy figures, she says.
"Here for the first time was a member of the servant class, Figaro, a barber, who was enormously clever, proud of his trade, and smarter than everyone," she explains. "Paris was all abuzz. Everyone knew it was about the aristocracy of that time."
Before the performance, teachers received study guides and worksheets from the opera company detailing the story, as well as tapes with opera songs. An opera singer also visited each school to give a 30-minute preview.
Epiphany students were almost as inspired as Rossini himself after that visit: They danced through the hallways singing "Figaro," at the top of their lungs, Finley says. Sixth-grader Euridio Evora was one of them. "People told me that opera is annoying. But I wanted to go for myself."