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Houston Grand Opera's Grander Plan Complete With Kids

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When Sandra Bernhard says that "Opera has a lot of myths associated with it," she's not talking about the great story lines of La Traviata or Barber of Seville. No, the director of HGOco, Houston Grand Opera's community outreach arm, is directly confronting the litany of knocks that people have against opera.

"'You're going to hate it.' 'It's loud.' 'There's no acting.' 'The stories are boring.' 'They're in foreign languages.' 'I have no idea what's going on,'" she recites, laughing as she goes.

Of course Bernhard knows differently and increasingly so do students and teachers across Houston who've had the benefit of HGOco's efforts to bring the arts into their classrooms. As a result, HGO, although not alone, is certainly an "industry leader" if that term can be applied to an opera company in terms of going outside its performance halls, in this case the Wortham Theater Center.

The Houston opera company has been named the recipient of a $250,000 grant from the national consortium ArtPlace to expand upon what it's already been doing. "We were invited to apply this first time out. While talking to them on the phone, it was immediately clear to me that we would be perfect," Bernhard says.

The mission of ArtPlace, made up of federal agencies and private donors, is "place building through arts," Bernhard says. "We are all about place building through arts, using storytelling to create stronger communities. And we do that through shared stories. If you know the story of your neighbor, you are more than likely to say hello to your neighbor, talk to your neighbor, know who your neighbor is and to help your neighbor. And we know that. And so by sharing our stories and learning who we all are in Houston, a city as dynamic and vibrant as Houston, it brings the city together."

"Opera to Go! and Story Book Opera are programs that we take out, especially with new partners. We know that there will be some people who don't like it but all in all, kids usually love it. Oftentime the people who are resistant to it are the older people, the teachers who were never exposed to it," Bernhard says.

After hearing their presentations, though, teachers often say: "Oh, I didn't know that was opera," Bernhard says.

HGOco doesn't adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to its outreach efforts. In fact, Bernhard says, she always warns new partners that the vision they have for a particular program isn't always going to be matched exactly by its particpants -- in fact, change is the rule rather than the exception.

In the Home + Place program, HGOco and its partners will go to specific schools and community centers in each of three areas -- Gulfton/Sharpstown area, Hobby and Northside/Second ward -- and work with students and adults there. At Garden Villas Elementary, a music magnet in the Houston ISD, the students are concentrating on telling stories of their (admittedly in many cases, still young) alumni.

At Kashmere Gardens, the students have combined with seniors at the community center across the street to grow radishes. The next step is to eat them. Okay, that doesn't sound much like opera.

But then painter Janice Freeman, working with the students, put together a 20-foot banner helped by Rice professor Geoff Winningham and his photography students.

"Each neighborhood will do a song cycle, written by local composers. Material will be drawn from classes and kids' interviewing projects. So each neighborhood will show what they've done and celebrate what they've done," Bernhard says.

And there's no problem finding volunteer composers, she says, from "the wealth of people who compose in this city. I'm really hoping that with the song cycles we're creating a group of remembrances. Passing down legends and legacies. The legends of who we are, passing down the things we know. And of what we're going to leave behind. A work of music and art that will be left behind."

Sports and learning math and English are all important in school, Bernhard says, but the arts are crucial as well. "Learning something and persevering to learn how to perfect something on the level of playing a clarinet, that's a real model of perseverance," she says.

"If you want to teach 21st century learning skills, then arts is probably the best way to do that. Arts give you a creative and imaginative way of looking at the world. The jobs these kids will be doing don't exist now."

"We are redefining what opera is; we are redefining what an opera company is to our city. Houston is in our name. We are not a building. We are a group of artists and craftsmen and managers and developers who are a cultural resource. We are a community member as well."

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