Opera has a bad reputation of being so exorbitantly epic that it's hard for all but the wealthiest to access.
Boulder Opera, a scrappy nonprofit with first-rate singers and innovative programming, has been challenging that notion and trying to make inroads with kids and others who might not be able to afford Opera Colorado seats.
The company's latest production, The Firebringers, is a thirty-some-minute opera for kids composed by Chappell Kingsland, who also conducts a small chamber orchestra and a handful of singers who perform three stories based on myths about the origins of fire.
To learn more about Kingsland's collaboration with Boulder Opera, we reached out to the composer.
Westword: Tell me about the collaboration you've been involved in with Boulder Opera?
Chappell Kingsland: I've been a big fan of the Boulder Opera for the last three years. It seems to me like they have some of the best singers in the area, seeing them show after show, so I really wanted to have one of my works done with them. I invited Dianela Acosta [the executive director] to the student production of The Firebringers two years ago in Denver. She liked it enough to decide she would program it now. Because the company wants to be doing contemporary works some of the time, it really just fit. The other thing is that the Boulder Opera has a very strong children's-outreach component to what they do, both in terms of giving public performances for kids and of actually showing up to elementary schools, performing for classrooms. This just really fit as something they could add to their offerings for this season.
Talk about the process of composing The Firebringers.
I was commissioned by a group called Reimagining Opera for Kids, which is an opera company in Bloomington, Indiana, and that's all they do is perform for kids. So they asked me to write something about mythology, and I decided that something comparing several cultures would be kind of exciting, with a common topic linking stories from various parts of the world. It really came first with choosing the topic, choosing the particular myths, and then it was a creative process on two fronts.
My brother [Ben Kingsland] is my librettist. We've collaborated on multiple operas. So he went and read several different versions of the myths from different books and online and came up with his own version of how to tell that story in the right time frame, in a way that could be sung, in a way that would be fascinating enough for kids.
I went and started listening to music from different cultures that we were portraying. I listened to a lot of Native American music. All the Linape that I could find, but also from some other tribes to get that sound world into my head. I listened to music from the Amazon. I listened to music from Kenya for the other scenes. For ancient Greece, I did listen to a really fine recording, but actually, I had written an entire book on ancient Greek musical theory, because, as we know, they were philosophers and they wrote about everything they were thinking about. There's only a few fragments of musical notation, but there is actually quite a lot written about the music of the time. From that, I was able to establish some ground rules: Here are some things I'll do that will sound at least in the direction of ancient Greek music. For all of this, my intention is not to borrow material directly from the cultures, but it's just to use the authentic music as a starting point for my imagination.
A lot of the music had quite a lot of dissonance in it and had things that were vaguely experimental going on. It was quite refreshing to hear something geared toward kids with some more complex stuff happening. Can you talk about that?
Good. Thanks. I'm glad you found it so. I've written a few pieces for young audiences before, and I have no need to write simple and bland music if it's for kids. I think it should be just as rich and interesting as anything else we write. I see it kind of as a matter of pacing, as far as the opera goes.
Kids are so open to new experiences and so curious and so able to take everything in. I have a friend who plays in a string quartet that does exclusively really, really contemporary music, and his little boy loves this kind of stuff, which most people would think would be impossible to listen to. It's just what he's used to. He thinks it's totally cool. And they're all making scratching noises and very strange out-of-tune harmonies and stuff. The kid got used to it because that's what he grew up around.
I think that opera is very much about storytelling and that the musical expression should not be limited. I think it's best to do whatever will serve the drama best. The other thing is the intention. I'm not setting out to write a Disney musical. If you're trying to write a Disney musical, you need to have very catchy tunes; you need to have plenty of repetition. The executive types want things to sound within a certain frame: "The kids will like it if it's catchy and it's memorable."
However, I'm not trying to write tunes that are repeated a lot. It's different than writing a musical.
I'm curious about the experience of conducting when you have a room full of children. Classical-music spaces tend to be so quiet. Audiences tend to be restrained. What's it like when you have a bunch of kids running around chatting?
Well, one of my jobs as an accompanist is playing at the Denver Waldorf School. I play the piano for kids ages five to fifteen every day. I'm well used to the experience of playing classical music for small children. As far as a conductor, I don't think there is any particular challenge in that, but it's more like what does it feel like to present this music to children? The funny thing is that I think a lot of adults have very short attention spans. I don't think that's only a thing about giving this music to kids. The ideal situation is that if a kid likes the show and they want to see it again, whether that happens during the same run or whether that happens a year or two later.
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With any opera, there's just so much complexity in the music that you really have to hear it several times in order to grasp it all. I'm not expecting that someone will grasp it all at first. I want them to be swept up in the story and for the music to carry them through that. I have a lot of practice in not getting distracted by kids in the audience.
I have found that kids have been very attentive and very eager to follow this. I can't take full credit for that. I write the music as good as I can, but I think the stories themselves are very compelling, and certain characters really draw the kids in. That's one thing I've heard from the company in Bloomington. They performed it about twenty times at different schools. The kids just loved that character Rainbow Crow, and they received so many thank-you letters that had illustrations of Rainbow Crow, and I received some of them as well. I'm very realistic. That's what a lot of the kids are actually focused on — the colorful costumes and the characters and how fun it is. And I think that's great. Opera is supposed to be a rich art form where you're getting musical and visual and dramatic stimulation all at once.
The Boulder Opera Company will perform The Firebringers on February 25 at 3 p.m. at the Center for Musical Arts, 200 East Baseline Road, in Lafayette, as part of Opera on Tap Colorado's Mini Festival of Mini Operas. Go to the Opera on Tap website for tickets and more information about the other performances.