Seattle Opera Opens Up for Kids a Whole New World of Music
Seattle Opera Youth Chorus inspires the next generation
Owen Begley-Collier stands center stage with his parents, Kim Collier (left) and Ellen Begley.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Even as a baby, Owen Begley-Collier showed a love for music. His parents, Kim Collier and Ellen Begley, have a video showing him at age 3 strumming a ukulele and belting out the entire Dixie Chicks song “Cold Day in July.”
Fast-forward eight years, and he’s taken his love of singing and performing to the Seattle Opera Youth Chorus, where he sings complex songs in foreign languages. Owen, 11, joined the open Overture choir last year, and this year sings with the audition group Crescendo. He hopes to eventually continue to the Advanced Ensemble mixed-voice chorus.
Adults, let alone kids, often regard opera as inaccessible — to watch and certainly to perform. But Seattle’s hometown company is determined to prove otherwise. One arm of this effort is a robust range of educational programs for preschoolers through pre-college singers. It’s not uncommon for opera companies to have children’s choruses or programs, but Seattle Opera’s goal is to keep performers participating for the long run.
“We wanted to find a way to keep our kids involved over time,” says Barbara Lynne Jamison, director of education and community engagement. “We have a long history of supporting young artists, and we’re looking at taking them through the entire continuum.”
More important, Seattle Opera welcomes students of all abilities and provides financial assistance to make opera accessible to all.
“It’s paramount to us that we provide an opportunity for everyone to sing and to make music,” Jamison says. “We want to break down that perception that opera is for the wealthy. It started for the masses, and we want to return it to that.”
Owen’s parents came to the idea when looking for a choir that would provide higher-level training than the choruses Owen had been a part of during elementary school.
The youth choristers are given remarkable performance opportunities, with some even participating in mainstage productions. Last year, Owen sang with professional opera members in a production about nature in the Pacific Northwest. “I got to sing at Benaroya Hall, which was really exciting,” he says.
Opera choruses are very different than other kinds of choirs, says Jamison. “We don’t just stand and sing on risers. You’re not trying to blend in with other singers.”
Some come to the program as new singers with little experience. Others have been singing or playing an instrument for years.
“We really try to work on the individual, as well as being part of something greater, and making the music come alive with movement and expression,” says Nicole Sonbert, who directs Crescendo.
The participants sing in a variety of languages, develop acting and movement skills, and perform with a live orchestra. In addition, choristers have access to behind-the-scenes tours, the chance to meet professional singers, watch mainstage rehearsals, and take part in specialized workshops.
It’s been a perfect fit for Owen, a sixth-grader at Salmon Bay School in Ballard. In addition to the Opera Chorus, he played the lead in Salmon Bay’s musical, Shrek, and sang “All You Need is Love” in the school’s inventive take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing featuring Beatles songs.
“I love performing,” Owen says. “When I was a little kid, I would do mini-concerts and invite the neighbors over.”
Two years ago, inspired by the group Nickel Creek, Owen took up the mandolin. Begley had inherited her great-grandmother’s mandolin, and she had it restored for him to try out. Now he has his own new instrument and has written some original songs.
Owen thinks his career will be as a marine biologist — he has a passion for orcas — but he will always find ways to be on stage.
“People have to figure out what matters to them,” Collier says. “I feel like music will always matter to Owen. It’s what connects him to his heart.”
Seattle Opera offers an array of programs for young people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.
For young children, the Opera Time program brings storytelling and music to libraries, daycares and classrooms. A more elaborate residency program is available to second-through-fifth-grade classrooms, where visiting musicians and performers work with a class over the course of 12 visits to create an entirely original opera. The program is free for low-income schools.
From July 10-14, elementary-school-aged kids will stage and sing musical theater scenes both indoors and out, ending with a performance for friends and family. Registration opens soon.
The Youth Chorus will next hold auditions June 7 and 10. All three of the chorus groups — Overture, Crescendo and Advanced Vocal Ensemble — begin their new seasons in September.
The school tour program this year brings Cinderella en España, a 50-minute bilingual opera, to schools throughout the area. Each performance includes a post-show discussion.
For more information on the Seattle Opera’s youth programs, visit seattleopera.org/classes-camps-clubs/for-kids or contact firstname.lastname@example.org