Several years ago, in the fall of 2013, I had just made the official, rather terrifying decision to leave my job of nearly 11 years to teach at my family’s small performing arts studio full-time.
As I faced the prospect of my new life as a dedicated teacher, constrained only by my own imagination (and our studio’s budget), my mind exploded with the possibility of it all. As one of the multitude of people now responsible for training the next generation of singers, I would now also become responsible in some small way for shaping that generation’s vision of what music in the theater would be. Thanks to my parents, classical music, and especially classical singing, is the first music I remember, and the first music I truly loved. And despite the fact that I utilized my own classical music education to pursue a career in mainstream musical theater, as the years passed, it is classical music that has endured for me, especially opera. It is the richest theatrical music I know, filled with emotion and all the terrifying complexity of human existence. It is incredibly powerful storytelling—the kind that taps into our deepest truths and reveals real understanding of the human condition. Like all the best theater, it has the power to make us better people.
Our society tells us that the operatic form is dying and that classical singing is something younger people can’t and won’t appreciate, and I bought that into narrative just as much as anyone. When the notion first occurred to me of putting together some opera scenes with our teen students, I sent out an email to 13 students whose voices I had deemed capable of the material to gauge interest. I figured maybe three or four of them would be interested, at most. To my surprise, every single one of them wanted to be included. Thus, Act Too Studio’s teen Opera Workshop was born.
Each year, the program has grown in ambition. What began as a few opera scenes turned into an exploration of the entire second act of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The next year, we produced a fully-staged opera (Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium). The next, we created our own full-length work out of madrigals and opera fragments by 17th-century composer Claudio Monteverdi, Il sogno d’Arianna, and performed it in a local opera house with a small orchestra.
What these students do with the work—what they make of it, and the way they embrace it—this is what the future of the theater could be. These are not child prodigies who have been steeped in classical music their entire lives. These are normal teenagers with the theater bug, who go to public school (or home school) and love Hamilton and High School Musical. But they’ve also fallen in love with this. And they’re making it their own. Their interest in this material goes far beyond a shallow desire to perform. They are hooked on the text, deeply immersed in the composer’s interpretive language, and have personal stakes in the perpetuation of that language. Their passionate topics of disccusion around the material range from the deeply philosophical to the purely whimsical. They are just as intent on textual analysis as they are in sorting the characters into Hogwarts houses. And they are just as likely to challenge as they are to embrace what they find. Changes to our upcoming 2017 adaptation of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte are so significant, we’ve had to change the title (to Cosi fan tutti—ALL people are like that) to reflect their sensibilities, their politics, and their vision of the future.
And what a vision it is! My students’ vision of what the opera of their future might be is beautiful, heavily text-driven, glorious, multi-disciplinary theater which values music, drama, and dance as vital components, melded together to create a more meaningful whole. In an artistic industry that has increasingly isolated these disciplines, this vision seems nearly unattainable. Yet the work they do proves otherwise. Last year’s Monteverdi project could never have been possible without the extraordinary contributions made by a single workshop alumna who sang, acted, danced, and choreographed major portions of the work, weaving her own multi-disciplinary magic throughout, with an extraordinary grounding in the text. Meanwhile, another alumna who turned to drama school for college, brought her lighting skills back with her to bathe our bare set in colors that honestly transformed the work into a piece of visual art. My students are already taking this work to the next level, and owning their artistic choices in a medium that gives them unparalleled tools for expression.
Though this began as my personal side-project, over the past few years, this workshop has firmly evolved into its own entity (both philosophically and literally, as my own small business) and as the time when I will also be solely responsible for Act Too Studio inches ever closer, I truly see the workshop and its mission as the future of the studio, and the perfect realization of my family’s vision. Our vision lies with the young people we teach, and they will determine its ultimate destination.
My students will not all become opera singers—most likely very few of them will. But they all will be a part of shaping the future of the arts in our society. They will be the ones who, in industry and education, determine our musical and human legacy.
– Melinda Beasi
Founder and Director, Act Too Studio Opera Workshop