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Young students swept by joyful tide of opera

Opera, why opera? Somersfield Academy primary school parents have probably heard this question more than once in the last couple of weeks.

Somersfield recently staged an opera with its primary school students as cast members. To pull off this feat they hired Sanford and Judy Jones of Savannah, Georgia who run a company called Youth Opera International out of Savannah, Georgia.

Mr Jones said the short answer to ‘opera, why opera' question is that the art form is multidimensional.

“It involves singing, dancing and acting, so it is very comprehensive,” Mr Sanford explained.

“It is fine for a child to belong to a choir to do singing, but this gives them a flavour of what it is like to do theatre in its entirety,” said Mrs Jones.

Mrs Jones studied ballet at the University of Utah and performed on Broadway in New York for ten years. She was in the original Broadway production of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' with Zero Mostel in the 1960s. She also ran three dance studios and directed them for two decades.

Mr Jones has loved music since he was a child. He went to Westminster Choir College and became very interested in teaching. He studied teaching as much as he did the piano. When the two met, Mrs Jones decided that Mr Jones' operas needed more movement. She sold her dance studios and began to choreograph operas that he had written. She also enrolled at Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia where she received a degree in theatre. They are now both Montessori trained.

For the last 28 years the Jones have been running Youth Opera International, a company that travels the country, and the world, helping schools to put on operas with their students.

“We became involved with Somersfield through one of their teachers, Heidi Coleman,” said Mr Jones. “She had a sister who had a child in one of our productions in Atlanta, Georgia. It was this connection that caused us to come to Somersfield the first time three years ago.”

Mr and Mrs Jones spent a week working with Somersfield students, helping them to improve their singing, dancing and performance skills. For many of the little ones it was the first time on stage. One of Mrs Jones' tasks was to help the children find their soprano voice, needed for opera.

“All children, until age 12, have a soprano voice,” said Mrs Jones. “Now, they don't always know that, especially with today's singing you hear on television and radio. But we like for them to experience it at least once. It doesn't always happen on stage because they will revert to their old ways when they get on stage and feel nervous.”

She gets them to find their soprano voice, the old fashioned way, through practice.

“That is something that has to be built regularly into their music class,” Mr Jones said. “For some children, if they are a little timid, or have a low physiological structure, you have to work with them to find their head voice.”

Last month, students performed Mr Jones' opera ‘Harlequin', about a little boy in Italy who wants to be a part of carnival but doesn't a costume. In the story, his friends get together to donate a little piece of their own costumes so that he can participate. The message is about giving and sharing.

There were two performances with students broken into two casts. On the Sunday night performance at Somersfield the rain threatened to trump everything as it pelted down, with water leaking over the stage. The show went on, however, despite a brief halt while equipment was moved to safer ground.

Music teacher Janice Pearman sang soprano taking on the role of Harlequin's mother. At one point there was a laughter in the audience as she sang about rain falling into dreams, pointing to the actual rain falling on the stage.

Mrs Sanford said they hoped that, ultimately, performing in the opera would help the children to develop greater self-confidence. They at least now know that they can perform in any weather.

“We think it will help them later on in life when they have to give a talk in their classroom,” she said. “It might help when they have to present themselves later for a job interview. It is about knowing how to stand and how to present yourself.”

Judy and Sanford Jones of Youth Opera International.

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Published March 05, 2014 at 8:00 am (Updated March 04, 2014 at 4:57 pm)

Young students swept by joyful tide of opera

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