CHERRY, MINN. – When Cinderella hit the high notes, the jaws of the grade-schoolers sitting on the gymnasium floor dropped wide open.
A few grimaced. A few covered their ears. Many seemed unsure of what to make of the heart-tingling pitch coming from the soprano’s vocal cords, a sound so high it was hard to believe it was made by a human.
It was the first time that professional opera singers filled this Iron Range school with booming voices best appreciated in person. And with it, the Duluth-based Lyric Opera Of the North finished its fifth year of bringing that cultural experience to elementary students in northern Minnesota through its Little LOON program.
“We are just doing opera for our very youngest patrons and they don’t drive, so we go to them,” said Sarah Lawrence, the opera’s general artistic director.
Performing a truncated operatic version of “Cinderella” this school year, four singers in their mid-20s and early 30s — a soprano, a mezzo, a tenor and a bass — crowded into a Chevy Suburban along with plastic tubs holding costumes, makeup, props and scene backdrops as they made the trip to small schools throughout the region. The play, reduced to 45 child-friendly minutes, used scripts and educational materials from Wisconsin-based Opera for the Young, a program visiting schools in that state for decades.
It costs a school $750 to host the opera performance — money schools often secure through fundraisers.
“You try to create experiences where all kids can flourish and grow,” principal Michael Johnson said. While he knew some kids simply wouldn’t like opera, he hoped others might connect with it. “This is one of those chances where we can try to meet kids who haven’t been reached yet.”
The cast arrived just after 8 o’clock on a recent morning at the school in Cherry, an unincorporated community some 15 miles southwest of Virginia, Minn. They fastened a frame of PVC pipe with canvas stretched across it — a scene of a castle painted on the cloth. Then they hoisted it upright under the basketball hoop before changing into costumes and warming up their voices.
“Ahhhh,” sang 24-year-old Madison Holtze, who portrayed Cinderella, as she brushed mascara on her eyelashes. Her voice reverberated throughout the empty gym, seeming to surprise even her.
“Whoa!,” she said. “I always want to see how it echoes.”
The actors then walked 16 student actors through their roles as mice in the production. By 9:20 a.m., the rest of the school’s children filed into the gym for show time.
Lawrence gave the audience an introduction to opera.
“Raise your hand if this is your first one,” she said to the more than 300 students sitting on the floor. A sea of small arms shot straight up.
“An opera is just a way to tell a story with singing,” Lawrence explained. Even if you can’t understand every word, she said “you always know what’s happening because the music always tells us.”
If the music didn’t tell the story clearly enough, the kid-friendly version kept the students entertained anyway. Two of their teachers — one male and one female — played Cinderella’s stepsisters. Cinderella used a feather duster to dust the top of the student actors’ heads. And Prince Charming broke out in a floss dance at one point. Each moment brought an uproar of laughter.
After some time for questions, the cast was packed back into the beige Suburban by 10:30, ready to head to the next performance at a school that afternoon.
The reviews from the tough grade school critics in Cherry were mostly positive.
“I loved how great they were singing,” 5th-grader Trinity Olson said. “How loud they were, how high they could get.”
Her classmate Toby Cavanaugh said he’d only ever seen opera on TV before.
“You get kind of a better view of what’s happening” in a live performance, he said. “I didn’t know anyone could really get that high. I was impressed.”