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Opera hits a high note with peanut-butter set

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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.

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