Brittney Lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat — Vidalia Lower Elementary kindergartners Sara Dickinson, from left, Byrielle Burns and Hayden Murray watch opera singers perform the “The Bremen Town Musicians” at the school Thursday.
Brittney Lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat — Vidalia Lower Elementary kindergartners Sara Dickinson, from left, Byrielle Burns and Hayden Murray watch opera singers perform the “The Bremen Town Musicians” at the school Thursday.

Festival of Music show targets younger audience

Published 9:07am Monday, April 21, 2014

Vidalia — A rooster, a donkey, a dog and a cat are helping Miss-Lou students learn the value of teamwork, all while giving them a little taste of opera as well.

This year’s Natchez Festival of Music children’s opera, “The Bremen Town Musicians,” written by John Davies, is the operatic version of the Brothers Grimm Tale “The Town Musicians of Bremen.”

The opera is reaching more than 7,000 kindergarten through sixth-grade students this month and made a stop at Vidalia Lower Elementary School last week.

The opera is the story of four farm animals a little past their prime — Eddie, a rooster, who dreams of being an opera star; General Boom, a retired military donkey hoping to start a band; Dorabella, a cat whose claws aren’t sharp enough anymore to catch mice and Barcarolle, a dog whose just too slow to catch rabbits now.

The animals set out on their own, and along their journeys, put aside their differences and come together to work as a team.

The opera has messages of cooperation, thinking for yourself and considering the feelings of others, all of which Jay Dean, the festival’s artistic director, says students pick up while also having fun.

“We use music as a vehicle to teach educational concepts, as well as positive life lessons,” Dean said. “It’s about teamwork and getting past racial differences, gender issues, and people coming together for a common goal.”

Children often hear from parents or teachers how they should be kind to others or work together, but Jami Leonard of New York City, who plays Barcarolle, said a new medium for that message can be useful for children.

“I think it’s always good to change up the media of the message for kids who might be audible learners or who may learn through music,” she said.

Caitlin Felsman of Boston, who plays the Dorabella, said it has been exciting for her to share opera music with students who haven’t been exposed to it.

“I wasn’t exposed to opera at that age, so it feels really nice to … share it with young people,” she said.

Felsman said she has also been able to talk to students who had questions and showed interest in opera after performances. At Vidalia Lower, students asked questions about why opera was sung so loudly and how the performers got so good at singing it.

“At every performance, there are one or two kids you can kind of see the light bulb go off in there head,” she said. “For me, music was what got me engaged and excited in school, so I’ve enjoyed sharing that with young people and letting them know that’s the way they can express themselves and find their own path.”

Jonathan Hill of Boston plays Eddie and said the children’s opera allows him to engage with an audience more than he can in a normal opera.

“The kids get to play along and be a part of the story,” he said. “I think (the message of the opera) also really highlights how to interact with people around you and be understanding and conscious of how other people feel.”

Alex Adams-Leytes of Minneapolis, Minn., who plays General Boom, said the opera gives the performers a chance to educate young people about opera and hopefully build a love for it.

“There is definitely a lot of concern about opera being a dying art, which I don’t entirely buy into,” he said. “They say the average opera-goer is in their 60s, but that was also true 60 years ago. But opera is an acquired taste and the earlier you start exposing kids to it, the earlier that taste can be acquired.”

The opera’s pianist, Jonathan Levin of New York City, is in his fifth year of the Festival of Music.

“One of the things I find most important about the festival is that it exposes opera to a younger audience with such positive messages,” he said.

Performances of “The Bremen Town Musicians” will continue this week at Braden Auditorium. For more information, visit natchezfestivalofmusic.com.