When the four members of Opera Lab, the two-year-old outreach program created by Opera Santa Barbara artistic director Jose Maria Condemi, arrived at Laguna Blanca School on Tuesday, October 11, the audience of students eyed them with typical adolescent wariness. “I might be willing to get into this,” their collective body language said, “but don’t expect me to go first.” But before they had a chance to sink any further into reluctance, singers Deborah Bertling, Toby Branz, Adam Meza, and Omar Crook, and pianist Margaret Halbig had two of them on their feet and drawn into a tight circle for an improv warm-up exercise. The other students looked on amazed as their classmates participated in two fast-paced rounds of improvised storytelling, with each member of the circle required to contribute just one word to an ongoing series of sentences that told a totally unexpected story.
As Halbig took her seat at the piano, the singers took turns delivering introductory remarks. Bertling described what a soprano is, and what types of parts she typically plays, all while moving around and singing, at times loudly in the middle of the room, at time softly to one member of the audience. Once the other three had taken their turns, the students knew not only what was required of a tenor, a bass, and a mezzo-soprano, but also what to call an aria, a recitative, and a duet, and how to understand the feelings they get when they hear music that’s legato or staccato.
And that’s when the real fun began. An easel with a large writing tablet appeared, and the students were invited to contribute, Mad Libs-style, to a simple story. “Once there was a…” said tenor Crook, and voices from around the room shouted out potential heroes. “And every day…” Crook went on. Minutes later, the Opera Lab had returned from a brief huddle and a world premiere opera began. Although the arias, duets, and trios may have sounded familiar musically — their tunes were all borrowed from existing works — this particular story about a clown who eats children, goes to clown jail, and returns a new clown, only to soar to stardom on daytime television, was not.
Students who moments ago had been seated, silent, and self-conscious were now jumping from their seats and doubled over in laughter as the troupe got further and further into their outlandish tale. Mezzo-soprano Branz skipped around the room singing about how much she wanted to play with Meza’s funny/sinister clown character, only to become the shrieking first course in his Sweeney Todd-like dinner. Thrown in jail by policeman Crook, the cannibal clown was joined by Martin Barnick, a 9th grader who was recruited to play his clown jail cellmate. “What are you in for?” Meza sang, his bass-baritone booming above the now-constant laughter. “I ate a kid,” replied Barnick, deadpan, to a stunned Meza. “Me too!” he wailed, raising the stakes: “How do you like them? I eat mine with salt and pepper.” To which young Barnick, now an opera star, replied with the biggest laugh line of the show — “I like mine with cilantro.”
This show, which the students named “Clowning Around,” while a bit ghoulish in subject matter, nevertheless became an unforgettable experience for everyone involved. Long after the Opera Lab players had left campus, the buzz about their amazing improvisation and singing skills remained.
This week the Laguna Blanca school newspaper will contain an ad for the upcoming Opera Santa Barbara production of La bohème, and for the special open dress rehearsal that’s free for students with ID on Wednesday, November 9, at the Granada Theatre, starting at 7 p.m. No doubt some of those students from Tuesday’s improv event will be in the audience, turned on to opera by one of the city’s most impressive and effective arts outreach programs. For more on Opera Lab, visit operasb.org.