SRQ Magazine | October 2016
Enter Og, a subterranean world filled with green, elfin creatures with a penchant for filching the possessions—and sometimes siblings and pets—of humans who live above ground. This frightening and fantastical world will be the setting for The Secret World of Og, a production of the Sarasota Youth Opera that will hold its US premiere here in November, accompanied with the debut of a newly commissioned orchestration. The tale, based on a popular Canadian children’s book, turns some fairy tale tropes on its head, but as audiences and performers will see, it fits neatly into a tradition of this art form. “It’s a rescue opera,” says Sarasota Youth Opera Musical Director Jesse Martins, “just like Fidelio.”
The Secret World of Og is just one of many productions this season that will expose our community’s youth to the arts opportunities accessible to them. Programs from the Sarasota Opera and Sarasota Ballet show off the region’s tremendous cultural assets. It’s a sign that arts education—or lack thereof—continues as a point of debate nationwide, and Sarasota stands as a place where a community belief in the value of arts education remains intact.
At the Opera, Martins and Manager of Educational Activities Ben Jewell-Plocher direct no fewer than seven educational offerings, including a full-scale, professional-level production in the fall, a youth chorus in the spring focused on teaching children to sing in foreign languages, summer opera camps and four different school-year outreach programs. The two men, “Maestro Jesse” and “Mr. Ben” to students, stress that youth opera doesn’t have to mean opera lite. “You don’t have to dumb it down because it’s being done by kids,” says Martins. Jewell-Plocher agrees: “We’ve found that the more challenging the work, the better participation we receive from the kids.”
All of the youth productions feature an orchestra and utilize the same opera professionals (such as lighting designers and members of the hair and make-up department) who work on the main-stage productions. “We strive to commission works that reflect that aesthetic of the opera tradition,” Martins says.
Part of the goal is to cultivate future opera singers, but Martins and Jewell-Plocher want their programs to provide positive, practical applications even when students do not pursue music as a career. Last year, the Opera’s youth outreach programs reached over 2,300 students in Sarasota County schools. The Youth Opera program is a non-audition program that accepts students of all musical skill levels, and the directors believe any child, regardless of skill level or aspirations, benefits from an arts education. “How we communicate with one another, our stories and who we are as a people—it’s typically done via art,” says Jewell-Plocher. “[Art] is how we express ourselves as a people, it’s how we’re going to teach the next generation.”
It is also an exciting time to be a student at the Sarasota Ballet. The hiring of Christopher Hird as the new education director means that education is a major topic of discussion at the ballet of late. Hird, a former dancer and seasoned ballet educator who honed his craft over 13 years at the Boston Ballet, leads such programs as the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory, Dance—The Next Generation (DNG) and the Sarasota Ballet School. Sarasota Ballet Director Iain Webb says it’s part of a long-term plan to keep ballet relevant in the region. “Looking to the future, we’re very much focused on recharging our mission and vision for the education department,” Webb says. The Margaret Barbieri Conservatory, founded four years ago, currently trains 28 future professional dancers between the ages of 11 and 18. Despite the conservatory’s relative institutional youth, it already makes major waves in the ballet world due to its rigor and standard of excellence: students have relocated from as far as Sweden to attend the conservatory. “My hope is that it will start to be the main source to feed our company,” says Webb.
Webb’s master plan for education at the ballet includes introducing a bachelor of arts honors program in classical ballet, but for now, the focus is on building up the conservatory. While both the conservatory and ballet school are designed with the express intent of training future professional dancers, DNG differs in that it uses dance as a method to promote positive change in the lives of youth. Founded in 1991, DNG provides 199 students ages 8 to 18 from low-income backgrounds with up to five hours of free dance instruction per week. In addition to dance training, DNG students also receive weekly academic tutoring.
The program has plenty of success stories. Adrianne Ansley, a 33-year-old Florida State University grad and professional dancer in New York, entered DNG as a third grader and joined the ballet school four years after that. She spent last year teaching at DNG. “It just warmed my heart,” Ansley says. “I’m actually doing what I said I wanted to do: I wanted to give back, so now I’m giving back to the next generation.” A 10-year program, students who remain in DNG for the entire duration and demonstrate academic success are eligible for full-tuition scholarships to State College of Florida or University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee upon completion of the program and graduation from high school. “It’s something that’s very important to us because it’s the future,” Webb says.
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