Amy Conn-gutierrez  /  AP
Pupils watch as Southern Methodist University graduate students perform in the opera "Red Carnations" at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dallas last month.
updated 5/4/2006 3:21:01 PM ET 2006-05-04T19:21:01

Antsy children froze mid-squirm when William Whitmire opened his mouth and filled the parish hall with an echoing baritone vibrato.

Most under the age of 11, the children sat transfixed as two other Southern Methodist University singers joined Whitmire to perform — of all things — an opera.

The performance of “Red Carnations” was one of dozens the graduate students have given this semester at Dallas-area schools through a new partnership between SMU and the Dallas Opera. The program aims to introduce young students to the art form while addressing socially relevant issues.

The English-language “Red Carnations,” for example, focuses on events that unfold after a young man and woman meet at a masquerade ball. The situation speaks to the problem of “stranger danger,” the ever-present reality drilled into students’ heads by schools — especially in the era of Internet predators, organizers said.

“We saw an opportunity to help teachers prepare students to be aware of their surroundings” and learn how to handle certain situations, said Margery Anderson-Clive, director of education at the Dallas Opera.

Anderson-Clive’s department prepares school teachers before performances by sending them a synopsis of the half-hour show, along with suggested lesson plans based on the opera’s themes.

“If we talk about awareness of ’stranger danger’ and learning ways to protect yourself — to engage in conversations safely without divulging personal information or putting your family in jeopardy or at risk — then this is also a valuable tool, a benefit of appreciating opera,” Anderson-Clive said.

The Dallas Opera is not the first to reach out to young audiences and teach them at the same time. The Manhattan School of Music, for example, performed the opera “Elijah’s Kite” in April for New York City schoolchildren to discuss bullying. A Michigan regional opera put on a show about smoking, said Robert Hansen, director of the National Opera Association.

He said regional opera houses are increasingly trying to meet young audiences on subjects and on a level that they will understand as a way of making a point about an issue and to overcome the stereotype of opera as an elite art form.

“Opera can be relevant to one’s everyday life. It’s not just the fat lady singing,” Hansen said.

Performances for very young children usually focus on selling opera as entertainment, while shows for middle and high school audiences are geared more toward teaching lessons, he said.

And the partnership with SMU adds another factor to the program. Not only are elementary and high school students learning about opera; the graduate student performers are, too.

Two casts of three people each perform “Red Carnations,” and the singers hold lofty aspirations of soloist positions and opera house glory. Their association with the Dallas Opera at such a young age gives them real-world experience — and a competitive edge.

“This opportunity is something that no university or college can do: that is a brush with the business,” SMU voice professor Virginia Dupuy said. “Because the expectations artistically, vocally, are just what the Dallas Opera would require of any of their singers.”

Abigayl Venman, 23, said her work with the opera house would unquestionably boost her resume. But she noted that performing for young and restless audiences also forced her to modify and polish her craft.

“Hopefully, by performing for children, it will be a learning experience and I can take that away to perform for discerning critics,” Venman said.

Her fellow singer Whitmire, 23, agreed: “You really have to amp it up a little bit.”

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