By SARA ARTHURS
The upcoming Toledo Opera performance of “Carmen” will feature an internationally renowned soprano — and a “street urchin” from Findlay.
Isaac Weese, a fifth-grader at Chamberlin Hill Intermediate School, is a member of the children’s chorus.
“Carmen,” which was composed by Georges Bizet, takes place in Spain but is sung in French.
“It’s just such an exciting story,” said Kevin Bylsma, head of music preparation at Toledo Opera, who directs the children’s chorus.
He said “Carmen” is the second-most produced opera of all time, after “La Boheme.”
The Toledo Opera website states that “The audience witnesses the ‘cigarette girl’ Carmen’s full range of emotion — savage fierceness, beguiling sensuality and tragic indifference. The soldier Don José and Carmen have a relationship that is, well, complicated. Is Carmen a feminist hero? A victim without freedom?”
The story itself is a heavy one, Bylsma said, but the children’s chorus is Bizet’s way of bringing “some lightness.” The children also give the feeling of what life in Seville in 1820 would have been like. The street children are just “playing, like kids always play,” Bylsma said.
Isaac, who is 11, said members of the children’s chorus are “kind of like these street urchins” who appear “here and there” in the show. They try to imitate some soldier characters as they are changing their shift, for example, his mother, Yukari, said.
Isaac previously participated in an “opera camp” at the Marathon Center for the Performing Arts. Children performed songs from “Pirates of Penzance,” and it was there that Isaac learned about auditions for “Carmen.”
One difference between opera and other types of performance is that no microphones are used.
“So you really have to project loudly. … You know, opera singers have these techniques,” Isaac said.
“Carmen” is sung in French, so Isaac and the rest of the children’s chorus had to learn the words, too. They learned to speak the words at first, then learned the notes, singing “la la la” to the tune. Then they put the words and notes together.
Bylsma more often directs adults, and he said keeping the children’s attention was a challenge at first. But he’s found that “They love the music. They love to sing. And they are picking up their staging faster than I ever could have imagined.”
The children are even coming up with some of their own ideas for things they can do onstage, he said.
“They’re kind of stage animals,” Bylsma said.
Isaac said the children got to know each other when voice rehearsals started in October, and they have made friends. (Bylsma, too, said the kids have formed friendships through rehearsals, but “it’s pretty much boys versus girls.”)
Bylsma said the children sing at the beginning and the end of the show. It’s “a very long night for them,” he said, noting the 15 children in the chorus range in age from 9 to 13.
The principal cast are internationally renowned in the world of opera, including soprano Alyson Cambridge, who sings the role of Carmen.
“He’s performing with professional opera singers,” Yukari said of her son.
The same cast recently performed “Carmen” in North Carolina and now are coming to sing at Toledo Opera, with Toledo’s theater and orchestra and stagehands. He said the costumes look amazing.
“It’s a huge, huge production,” Bylsma said.
Bylsma also teaches opera singing at Bowling Green State University, where students perform two fully staged operas a year.
He said opera is “just this grand way of telling a story.” Along with singing, dancing, costumes and sets, opera today includes projections to depict scenery, making it more like a movie in some ways. And it isn’t like it used to be, that only “wealthy, older people” come to opera, he said.
Yukari said she herself hadn’t previously understood opera’s appeal, but her view has changed since Isaac started attending “Carmen” rehearsals.
“It is soothing, if I am just listening,” she wrote in an email to The Courier.
Also, “The opera voices are powerful. Combined with the familiar classical piece, they create a drama (with human emotions) without speaking but singing. Wow.” And there is also a visual aspect, allowing her to “just enjoy the colorful costumes and beautiful and massive stage set,” she wrote.
Bylsma said Toledo is lucky to have “a vital opera company in a town of this size.” It used to be many cities had their own opera, but the expense of producing it meant many closed over the years.
Carmen is a “really powerful” show, Bylsma said. And Carmen herself is “such a strong character.”
“She is the ultimate opera femme fatale,” Cambridge said in a video greeting on the Toledo Opera website. “She’s sexy, she’s sassy, she’s vulnerable, she’s complex — there’s so much to her.”
When the opera premiered in 1875, it was a huge shock. The feeling was “women weren’t independent like that,” and it was considered “almost risque,” Bylsma said.
The music itself is “incredible,” he said. Even if you don’t think you know it, you’ll recognize portions of it, he said. The film “The Bad News Bears” includes music from “Carmen,” and so have many television commercials, he said.
Yukari, too, said when she heard “Carmen” she realized she had heard some of the songs before.
Isaac has been studying voice for several years and has been in the Hancock County Children’s Choir since second grade.
His involvement in “Carmen” meant he had homework even over the holidays, as the children’s chorus was expected to listen to recordings to be ready.
Isaac’s goal is to pursue a career in musical theater.
He said he likes opera, but “I’m not a big fan of the sad operas,” the ones where “eventually everyone loses. … And they have, like, a lot of those operas.” He prefers the comic operas.
Yukari, too, likes comic operas better than sad ones. Carmen is a sad story, including — spoiler — the death of the main character. It’s controversial, and “the whole story is not for children,” Yukari said. But the children’s chorus creates a lighter element of a sad show.
“Getting to know everybody and getting to know the directors has been fun,” Isaac said.
And he likes the way the chorus sings together, in unison: “I like that feeling.”
Rehearsals offer a time when he can just “sing freely.” It’s not like “if you’re singing in the middle of the store or something,” Isaac said. (He doesn’t do this, he assured The Courier, but he does hum sometimes.)
As performance time nears, “Our director expects more from us,” Isaac said.
He said he’s not too nervous about the performance, and it helps to be with a bigger group, in the children’s chorus.
“I can’t wait to see what the Valentine Theatre’s like from the stage,” he said.
“Carmen” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Valentine Theatre. “Student Night at the Opera” is Wednesday.