While many students were probably off basking in the sun, students in the University of Florida Opera Theatre were busying touring throughout Osceola County during their spring break. Their audiences, however, were not the typical opera enthusiasts; they were middle school students.
From March 5 to 8, twelve UF opera students made the classrooms, hallways and even cafeterias of nine different schools their stages to share their passion for performing with choral students who typically are not exposed to operatic music.
These middle schoolers were treated to a sneak peak of UF Opera Theatre’s most recent production, The Barber of Seville, which they later performed at the University Auditorium on March 30 and 31 in the University Auditorium and at the Reilly Center for the Arts in Ocala on April 7.
“This is a part of what they want to do as musicians,” said Dr. Elizabeth Graham, emeritus professor and head of the voice area at the School of Music. “They want to learn and practice their craft. This is a good way to achieve both things. They get the opportunity to perform in front of students, and, on the other hand, the students get to see kids that are not so far from their age group on the stage doing opera scenes and enjoying performing.”
Led by Dr. Elizabeth Graham and Dr. Tony Offerle, UF Opera Theatre also hosted workshops and talkback sessions where their young audiences could interact with the performers, ask them questions and learn more about their art form.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to share opera with the students of Osceola County,” said Offerle, associate professor and artistic director at the School of Music. “We hope students gain a valuable musical experience that inspires them to continue their pursuit of music and the arts throughout their education.”
Each participating middle school was provided with a curriculum guide that integrated UF Opera Theatre’s performances with lessons in history, language arts, theatre and music. Since its inception, this outreach program has been a shining example of how to successfully create an engaging and inspiring interdisciplinary program for students.
“The School District of Osceola County is thrilled to bring the talented faculty and students from the University of Florida Opera Theatre into our classrooms,” said Debbie Fahmie, Fine & Performing Arts Resource Specialist at the School District of Osceola County. “This collaboration is an opportunity for our students to experience the high level of artistic excellence that is characteristic of strong higher education arts programs at preeminent institutions like UF.”
During the tour, UF Opera Theatre also stopped at Osceola Arts where they offered a free community performance of “An Evening of Selections from The Barber of Seville” that furthered their mission to introduce opera to the community.
None of this would have been possible though without the generous support of the Universal Orlando Foundation. Spearheading the search for funding was Vince LaRuffa, the father of one UF Opera Theatre’s students. LaRuffa was “so impressed” by the level of talent showcased in last year’s production of La Bohème, shared Graham.
“He has been a champion because he believes in what we do here at the University of Florida,” Graham said. “He really has been very helpful, very encouraging and caring about the students and their desires to be on the stage doing these kind of things. He has jumped on our bandwagon to do these kinds of things like outreach.”
What has become a county-wide tour first started with a simple idea to improve arts education and accessibility so school children could experience being at an opera, Graham said.
“It was years ago when we were working with Florida Arts Celebration and the idea was to give the students in the public schools some exposure to the arts, in particular opera and classical music,” said Graham. Years later, UF Opera Theatre continues to educate and inspire the next generation of performers by simply doing what they do best.
“For me, it’s very gratifying to see these young people want to do this and to carry this kind of music, carry that legacy forward,” Graham said. “They need to see that there is joy in performing classical music and performing opera and telling a story. It’s theatre, it’s singing, it’s all of that together. It’s a wonderful artform.”
Private support keeps the opera program alive at UF.
To support the UF Opera Theatre, consider giving a gift to the Elizabeth Graham Fund for Opera.
The program involved nine middle schools, including Neptune Middle School, Osceola County School for the Arts, Horizon Middle School, Westside K-8, Denn John Middle School, Kissimmee Middle School, Narcoossee Middle School, St. Cloud Middle School and Parkway Middle School.
This activity has been funded in part by the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs Culture Builds Florida’s Future and a Tourist Development Tax Grant from the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners in conjunction with the Alachua County Tourist Development Council.