“A lot of people say, ‘why opera?’ And I probably questioned that myself because I hadn’t been exposed to it much as a child.” Today, Melissa Summers serves as a board member of the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre. As the music teacher at Johnson STEAM Academy, she’s also become a passionate advocate for the Opera Theatre’s Young Artist and School Outreach Program. The program selects college-aged performers from across the country to come to Cedar Rapids. Participants are involved with the Theatre’s mainstage performances but also get the opportunity to bring opera to area elementary school students.
“I think kids are the most important part of opera,” says young artist Stephanie Newman, the mezzo soprano who was chosen to play Pinocchio in this year’s school performance. “They’re our next generation and it’s their first experience hearing something like this – they’re just in awe when they see us perform.”
But Stephanie thinks the impact of opera performance goes beyond exposing children to the art form. “This serves a social good, because this can be a kind of escape to a different world,” she explains. “You don’t know the impact it could have on them for the rest of their lives and so it’s important that this organization exist for them.”
Melissa agrees that the impact of opera is bigger than providing entertainment. She creates a curriculum guide for teachers to use to relate the school performance to other subjects. “I call the arts the glue that holds everything together,” she says. “The arts express humanity. They reflect emotions. To be able to enjoy the arts as an audience member, you have to be able to have that deep understanding across the spectrum of all subject areas. It’s very important.”
The Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre hopes to continue to provide opera exposure to area students for years to come. Opera Theatre founder and artistic director Daniel Kleinknecht believes that youth outreach is an essential aspect of their work. “In many cases, this is the first musical experience our Cedar Rapids school children will have. And that’s a vivid experience for these young people. So, I hope that we are able to continue to invest in the youth of today and the audiences of tomorrow.”
In 2015, the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation awarded a grant to the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre to assist in funding their 2016-2018 Young Artist and School Outreach Program.