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Behind the Curtain: Making Opera ‘Not a Dirty Word’

Arts education has innumerable positive benefits for children: It increases their critical thinking skills, tolerance of other peoples and cultures, and understanding of their own cultural history. Over the past decade, however, arts education programs in public schools have suffered due to a constant whittling away of their budget. The threat grows more dire as our new national administration has set its sights on both dismantling public education and defunding National Endowment for the Arts. The arts are in serious danger.

Kim Carballo, founder and director of ROK. | Photo by Synthia Steiman

Kim Carballo, founder and director of ROK. | Photo by Synthia Steiman

Thankfully, Bloomington has an active community of artists who dedicate much of their time to arts education outreach. Reimagining Opera for Kids (ROK) is a shining example. Nine years ago, Kim Carballo started ROK to combat the defunding of arts education in public schools, as well as to provide performance opportunities for her students. In her career as an opera coach for Indiana University’s Opera and Ballet Theater, Carballo noticed “there was a big gap between what [the singers] were doing in the practice room and what they were being asked to do on the mainstage.” The two needs seemed to fit “hand in glove,” she says. So ROK was born.

Opera has a definite stereotype — it can seem stodgy and foreign. According to Carballo, ROK’s goal from the beginning has been to “make opera not a dirty word.” Through relating opera techniques and classics to works the kids already know, ROK shows children how opera is more like Annie or Hamilton, for example, than they might first imagine. Once the children see the familiar, they are more open to the unique aspects of opera.

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For the 2016-17 season, ROK has made opera more accessible by emphasizing audience interaction. The season consists of two pieces whose plot and characters are dictated by viewers. For middle school-age groups, ROK performs Ben Taylor’s Working Title, a completely improvised opera. During the performance, the children ring a bell to change the characters or the events on stage. The actors could end up being an alligator, a zombie, a Hawaiian monarch, or even a combination of all three. While improvisation is extremely difficult, it gives the children agency over the story they are seeing — teaching them that not only can they enjoy opera, but they can create operatic narratives as well.

Kim Carballo (left) and Miles Edwards (second from left) teach children about the cello. | Courtesy photo

Kim Carballo (left) and Miles Edwards (second from left) teach children about the cello. | Courtesy photo

To a lesser extent, ROK’s performances of Rufus and Rita, by local composer Lauren Bernofsky, give elementary school children the ability to create their own opera. The story focuses on a young girl, Rita, and her dog, Rufus. Doing what dogs do best, Rufus scrounges up something that smells interesting to eat. Rufus and Rita offers a choice of two narratives. The children in the audience play an integral part in the creative process by getting to decide if Rufus finds a yummy dog biscuit or a moldy sandwich. Their choice determines the story to follow.

Ben Rardin (left) gives Rufus, played by Megan Wilhelm, a veterinary examination in

Ben Rardin (left) gives Rufus, played by Megan Wilhelm, a veterinary examination in “Rufus and Rita.” | Courtesy photo

ROK’s success proves that arts education outreach programs work. Over the past several years, ROK has had an almost 100 percent re-invitation rate, which means that they are consistently asked to come back and visit. This year alone they performed approximately 50 shows for public schools, libraries, and children’s organizations. Carballo and her volunteers receive thank you letters and recognition from the children themselves. For example, Carballo received a letter from a young boy named Mickey, which said, “Whoever put you in charge was really smart” and that she “was so good she could be on America’s Got Talent.” High praise! One of Carballo’s performers, Kelsey Webb, also had a “rock-star moment” when a young girl recognized her at the grocery store.

But one of the biggest pieces of evidence that programs like ROK work is Ben Rardin, a graduate student in opera education at IU Jacobs School of Music. His first experience with opera was from an outreach program that came to his elementary school. Afterward, he was hooked! He started volunteering for ROK at the beginning of the 2016 season, and since then, he has played the grandpa/veterinarian in the majority of Rufus and Rita performances. He says, “I guess the reason I feel so passionate about outreach programs is because I am the product of one.” He plans to continue participating in outreach programs even after his career takes him outside of Bloomington. With success stories like Rardin’s, it is not hard to imagine that ROK has already inspired several young children, maybe even Mickey, to pursue a career in opera.

You and your family can experience ROK’s fun and unique operas at A Season of Playfulness — their season-ending gala — on Tuesday, April 4, at 6:30 p.m. at the John Waldron Arts Center. That night, ROK will perform both Working Title and Rufus and Rita. While this is a free show, you will need tickets to attend. Get tickets by contacting ROK directly. If you can’t make it to the show, feel free to visit ROK’s website or Facebook page to get more information about arranging visits to your class or organization or for information on how to support the work they do.

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Contributors
Jennifer Pacenza
Jennifer Pacenza came from Texas to Bloomington to pursue a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature and drama at Indiana University. After arriving, she fell in love with the wealth of performance talent and venues she found here. Bloomington inspired her to create and author Bravo, Bloomington!, a blog dedicated to local performance. When not immersed in the world of theater and performance, Jennifer enjoys reading comic books, painting miniatures, and playing fantasy RPGs with her husband and son.
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