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‘Opera for All’: Eastern partnerships bring opera to local children

Published on March 21, 2024

‘Opera for All’: Eastern partnerships bring opera to local children

Eastern's main stage production of "The Reluctant Dragon"

Chris Gregor (left) and Adam Benway rehearse for Eastern's main stage production of "The Face on the Barroom Floor," part of "An American Opera Double Bill."

From left: Sarah Burkart, Anastasia Korzhoff, Sierra McElroy and Grace Michalowski during "The Beautiful Bridegroom"

Eastern Connecticut State University’s opera program has found new inspiration in bringing opera to audiences outside the University, including local children. The 2023-24 academic year’s “Opera for All” program features performances for younger audiences and is supported by a grant from the Jeffrey P. Ossen Family Foundation.

“Opera for All” marks the latest chapter in the partnership between Eastern’s opera program and the Ossen Family Foundation. The partnership began in 2022 with Eastern’s first-ever main stage opera production, Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.”

“I’ve always been passionate about sharing the joy of opera with our youngest community members,” said Emily Riggs, professor of music and director of Eastern’s opera program. “Both of my parents are singers and growing up, I fell in love with the magic of opera.” This opportunity sparked the partnership with the Ossen Family Foundation, which has a long tradition in supporting local arts initiatives.

Read along

Cast members of "The Reluctant Dragon" participate in a reading at Natchaug Elementary School. From left: Micah Dubitzky, Taegan Botti, Kianna Mitchner and Manuel De La Flor

The performance season will culminate in a 30-minute adaptation of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” on April 13 at 2:30 p.m. in the foyer of the Fine Arts Instructional Center. This performance will be free for all audience members, thanks to the support of the Ossen Family Foundation. In addition, “Opera for All” brings adaptations of these performances to local schools and libraries.

A community engagement project in fall 2023 involved Eastern’s production of John Rutter’s “The Reluctant Dragon.” Riggs explained, “Opera students volunteered to lead several days of readings and craft projects in local schools and libraries in November and December.” The activities took place at Natchaug Elementary School in Willimantic, the Jonathan Trumbull Library in Lebanon and the Willimantic Public Library.

Music student Grace Michalowski commented on the importance of being exposed to many forms of music, including opera, at a young age. “I think that’s one of the reasons why I grew up to be so passionate about being a musician,” said Michalowski, who attended many Hartford Symphony Orchestra concerts as a child.

“Exposing kids to music they might not hear all the time, like opera, is really cool,” she said. “It’s very educational and I think it’s extremely important for kids to have access to.”

In several cases, children enjoyed the readings so much that they came to see the main stage production of “The Reluctant Dragon” on Dec. 3, 2023. “It was wonderful to see some familiar faces in the audience as we performed,” said student Taegan Botti, an enthusiastic participant in the readings.

CCE student volunteers take part in a reading of "The Magic Flute" as part of their after school program initiative.

Local elementary school students enjoy a reading of "The Magic Flute," a collaboration between Eastern's opera program and the CCE.

“Opera can be for any age,” said Eastern student Sierra McElroy, who participated in the readings and the main stage production of “The Reluctant Dragon.”

McElroy was grateful for the opportunity to bring opera to children in the community, as “there is not a lot of accessibility in opera, especially for younger people,” she said. These events for local children “showed that opera is more than just the stereotype.”


CCE student volunteers lead local elementary school students in a reading of "The Magic Flute."

The readings continued into the spring 2024 semester as a collaboration between Eastern’s Music Department and the Center for Community Engagement (CCE). From Feb. 21 to Feb. 28, CCE student volunteers read “The Magic Flute” to students at five elementary schools in Windham.

“The story not only entertained but also introduced children to classical music and opera in an engaging manner,” said Lana O’Connor, director of the CCE. “This collaborative effort demonstrates the strength of our community partnerships and our ability to work together toward the common goal of enriching the lives of young learners.”

In addition to the presentation of “The Magic Flute” on April 13, full performances will take place at Natchaug Elementary School and Windham Center School on April 9 and Lebanon Elementary School on April 15.

Written by Noel Teter