It was opera like you’ve never seen it — a dozen teens creating a three-minute show out of a children’s book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
As 13-year-old Taj Hunter wriggled across the floor as the caterpillar, the performers playing the fruits he ate took their dramatic turns at operatic death.
“Tell my mother I love her,” bellowed the dying plum, who collapsed to the stage.
“Noooo. I’m too young to die!” the strawberry screamed as the caterpillar munched at her feet.
Then it was Kae Mella’s turn as the ice cream cone that, as the familiar story goes, makes the caterpillar sick. Only the song of her death was less aria and more Louis Armstrong.
“Ah hope you get a BRAIN FREEEEEZE!” she sang.
Even among these teens, who are being trained in music and acting at the Lundstrum Center for the Performing Arts, opera is a little foreign. It is why the north Minneapolis center teamed up with performers and directors from Mill City Summer Opera to provide a four-session opera camp, which concluded with the “Hungry Caterpillar” opera, which the teens created and performed this week.
“We find that opera, especially for younger kids, can be incredibly overwhelming,” said David Lefkowich, artistic director for the Mill City company, which is performing “The Barber of Seville” outdoors at the Mill City Museum Ruin Courtyard in Minneapolis this week.
“There are so many aspects of it that feel so foreign. ... It can sometimes make people feel farther away from the product, when the intent is to make them feel closer to it.”
While Mill City’s sold-out shows demonstrate that opera still sells, Lefkowich said, the aging of the audience is obvious and camps such as this are needed if the art form is to take hold in the next generation.
The Mill City performers taught the youths about opera and how it differs from musical theater and invited them to a rehearsal.
On this day, they split the teens into groups and worked with them over an hour to create their mini-operas. Performer Elizabeth Steffensen encouraged them to sing with “opera voices,” meaning with clarity, enunciation and enough volume to fill a room without a microphone.
After Mella’s “brain freeze” line, Lefkowich paused the show and had her try it again.
“Sing it,” he encouraged her. “Sing it like an opera.”
Whether the camp produces the next “Pagliacci,” it had the intended effect. The 13-year-old Hunter normally plays trombone but enjoyed his starring role as the caterpillar.
“Now I know that opera isn’t just slow and boring and long,” he said. “It has fun in it.”