“Is it possible for your voice to reach so high that it can shatter glass?” a Peterson Middle School student asked the opera singers visiting from Opera San Jose (www.operasj.org) for a Jan. 18 school presentation. The answer was “yes” although none of the opera singers present have ever accomplished this feat. During this hour-long presentation, students learned about opera, a story told by actors through music and singing, usually without speaking.
“While the opera is entertaining, there’s also that passion, that fire that gets fed,” said Susan Harris, Principal of Peterson Middle School. “I love that our students are inquisitive. They want to know more. This might be a profession for them someday. Where do passions start in our kids? It’s around this time—in middle school.”
According to Lettie Smith, Educational Outreach Coordinator at Opera San Jose, opera singers—unlike other stage performers—don’t use microphones on stage.
“Opera singers are trained to project their voices,” Smith said. “They’re trained to make sure their voices are heard in these enormous theaters without the benefit of amplification.”
Smith explained that the soprano, who often plays the heroine, is able to sing higher notes than other voice types. The mezzo-soprano’s range is not as high as the soprano so she can sing lower notes with a darker vocal quality.
“The difference between tenor and baritone is the same as the difference between soprano and mezzo-soprano,” said Nicholas Dold, a coach/accompanist for Opera San Jose. “The baritone would sing in a darker and lower voice. The tenor sings the higher range of male voices. Instead of utilizing the full orchestra, we have a pianist playing the part of the full orchestra.”
With the melodious piano music played by Dold, the rich and silky voices of the opera singers filled Peterson Middle School’s Multi-Purpose Building during performances by Brandan Sanchez, a baritone; Nicolas Gerst, a tenor; Savannah Swan, a mezzo-soprano; and Gaby Catipon, a soprano. Songs sung in Italian included a duet from Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” and the “Famous Quartet” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”
During the interactive presentation, students practiced directing the singers by making the arm motions associated with conducting music. Also, a few students got to come in front of the stage to demonstrate theatrical gestures associated with live theater, such as opera.
The opera singers also educated the students about opera. Facts they shared included that the first opera was performed in Florence, Italy in 1600, the first opera performed in the United States was in 1829 in New York City, and it costs Opera San Jose about a million dollars to produce an opera.
“We’ve been partnering with Opera San Jose for almost 15 years,” said Mary Fries, sixth grade homeroom teacher at Peterson Middle School. “We want to expose students to opera, which is an enriching cultural experience, and to encourage their interest in the arts. This program is made possible by a generous grant from the Santa Clara Schools Foundation.”