In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Seeing the Everyday in a New Light: Temple Ohabei Shalom’s Preschoolers Experience The Love Potion

Dec 26, 2014 12:22:00 PM
By BLO Staff

by Heather Gallagher, BLO Emerging Artist and Resident Teaching Artist

I can remember from a very early age being intrigued with the idea of classical music. I guess I must have been around 11 or 12 years old when I picked up a recording of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. I remember really enjoying the first song, “O Fortuna” (I had heard it in movies and numerous commercials), but after a while I became frustrated with the following songs. It was a little overwhelming, all that clashing percussion, brass, and people singing in a weird language I didn’t understand. It was a lot to take in, and truth be told, I felt kind of stupid for not “getting it.” So I turned off that record and took a breather…for about ten years. The next time I delved into the world of classical music, I was about 22 years old. Years pass, I am now a professional opera singer. Go figure!

In addition to my work in opera, music education is one of my passions. When BLO’s education team, Beth Mullins and Lacey Upton, asked me to come to Temple Ohabei Shalom to talk to some of the Temple’s students in November, during the opera's run there, I was thrilled. The task seemed simple: talk about my experience working with Boston Lyric Opera’s production of The Love Potion. Then I remembered that my “audience” was around four years old. What could an audience of preschoolers possibly get from a work such as Frank Martin’s little-known and seldom-performed The Love Potion, a work that borrows significantly from 12-tone techniques and features a very mature plotline of adultery and forbidden love? I walked through the Temple doors that morning with some sense of uncertainty as I wondered how exactly this was going to work.

Heather Gallagher, Resident Teaching Artist,
meets with preschool students at
Temple Ohabei Shalom.

As I set foot inside the Temple, my apprehension abated as I watched my colleague, Brad Vernatter, BLO’s Director of Production, offer one of our props, a glowing orb, to a group of youngsters. A chorus of “Ahhhs!” came from the larger group as Lacey, Beth, and the educational team brought these magical props around to other groups to see and touch. I saw their eyes light up again as I approached the stage with one of our costumes, a heavy linen robe. Introducing myself, I explained who I was and a little about the show and the purpose of the robe. We sang “Happy Birthday” to one of the students, and I did some vocal warm-ups for them. Things were going great. Then,  I had the bright idea to open things up to some questions. Here’s a sampling of what I experienced…

Me: “ Does anyone have any questions about singing or opera?”
Preschooler #1: “My dad has a car!”
Me: “That’s wonderful! Do you have any questions about music or opera or what it’s like to be a singer?”
Preschooler #1: “No!”

Me: “How about anyone else? Any questions. Don’t be shy!”
Preschooler #2: “My dad has a, has a guitar!”
Me: “That’s really neat! Do you play the guitar at all?”
Preschooler #2: “No, my dad has a nice guitar!”

Me: “What about you, you’re VERY enthusiastic! What’s your question?”
Preschooler #3: (Silence...)

Children at this age are so refreshingly honest, it isn’t difficult for them to catch you totally off-guard – repeatedly. As an artist, I feel a lot of pressure wherever I go to help people understand opera, and it seemed in the moment that this little exercise in audience development had backfired. But then, an interesting thought cut through the clutter of my neurotic brain: “Understanding is important, but there is no understanding without experiencing first.”

That was when I realized what the point of today’s visit was: The Experience. Not comprehension, but the tangible experience of being in the presence of working artists, music, and opera. Being able to hold a real, working prop in your little hand, hearing a live opera singer sing some scales, seeing a conductor work, and being surrounded by numerous instruments and knowing what that sounds like…even seeing your place of worship totally transformed into a strange and marvelous new theatre with a stage and audience seating on all sides. Being able to see the everyday in a new light: that’s what today was about.

Four-year-olds have it easy. They’re allowed to be silly, make mistakes, and explore. They’re encouraged to do so. As adults, we feel so much pressure to be smart, measure up, know what’s going on, that we forget about the experience. But it’s open to us at all times. One doesn’t need the mindset or knowledge of a professional to unlock the joys of classical music. You don’t need to understand a single thing, actually. Like a four-year-old, you just need to open your eyes and ears to the experience. 

Preschool students listen attentively as Ms. Gallagher tells them about her job
as an opera singer and demonstrates vocal warm-ups.
Conductor David Angus leads a sectional rehearsal while
preschool students listen and watch.
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