5 Questions to Rebecca Comerford (Founder, Ojai Youth Opera)

Ojai Youth Opera is the first and only standalone youth opera company in the United States, presenting a full season of both canonical and contemporary works since 2012. This season, Ojai Youth Opera has commissioned an original electronic chamber opera, Nightingale and the Tower, by Jason Treuting of Sō Percussion, Beth Meyers, Mikael Jorgensen of Wilco, and OYO Founder and Artistic Director Rebecca Comerford, set to premiere on May 18-19, 2019 at the Libbey Bowl. We asked Rebecca five questions about commissioning new opera for young performers and the importance of community programs and social engagement.

What was the rationale behind commissioning a work of new music, rather than re-working a canonical piece or presenting opera in a way with which young people are more familiar?

Great question! The rationale was two-fold. For starters, part of our mission at Ojai Youth Opera is to create new work for children that speaks to the specific narratives that youth are navigating. There aren’t many operas written for young people to identify with, let alone sing, and finding operatic repertoire that is age appropriate and pedagogically appropriate can prove to be challenging since so little of it exists. Secondly, I feel that America is fielding this next generation of excellent new composers. As it is a relatively new art form to us as Americans, we are still evolving alongside it. We don’t face some of the same constrictions of tradition that European countries do, and therefore, we have more room to explore what the art form means to us.

The psyche and motivations of our characters in American opera are extremely important. In crafting librettos, we Americans ask questions like, “How rich is the character development?” and “What is the story trying to teach us regarding our own social responsibility…?” I believe that comes from a long tradition of valuing theatre and film in this country. We want to tell stories that make us question our identity. Whether it be playwrights like Arthur Miller or film makers like Spike Lee, we come from this deep-rooted place of seeking.

I was finding those stories among my contemporaries to be very compelling, but little to nothing was being created for children. I wanted to create a platform for their voices to be heard. I also wanted to collaborate with composers I feel are both pioneering and bold in their approach to making music. I knew Jason Treuting, Beth Meyers, and Mikael Jorgensen would be complementary counterparts to one another and was curious to see what happened when we sparked a musical dialogue together.

Rebecca Comerford--Photo by Sol Tryon

Rebecca Comerford–Photo by Sol Tryon

Since the opera is from the perspective of a young boy, how much, if any, engagement with young people informed the writing of Nightingale and the Tower?

I am a mother of two. I have a daughter who is nine and a son who is three. Mikael is also a father of two boys, ages five and eight, and Beth and Jason are parents of two girls, ages five and seven. Many philosophical conversations were had among us all regarding how to best balance the complex demands that technology is placing on the lives of our children as they mature in this uncharted digital age. All of us are the last generation to grow up without the constant omnipresent force of the internet and cell phones saturating every aspect of our lives. We have all watched how these technologies are shaping our children to be more dependent on them in multiple ways; from being a tool for schoolwork, to social life, to entertainment, to creative exploration. And yet, as young parents, we’ve all been questioning how much we embrace the tool and how much wariness and discipline it takes to ensure it doesn’t become something much more insidious.

During the rehearsal process, how focused and effective are the opportunities for education between the young musicians and their adult counterparts?

This is an inter-generational opera with the form flipped on its head. In Nightingale and the Tower, the kids are the principle characters in the story, and the adults serve as the comprimario parts to the children, so there is much opportunity for our youth cast to learn and garner wisdom from our adult cast. There are seven youth principles, seven adult supporting roles, and a youth choir of twenty eight.

Our company members meet twice a week to rehearse with guest artist faculty members. They have individual coachings with a rehearsal pianist, diction coachings, staging rehearsals, and choir rehearsals, just like any professional adult would have as part of a regional opera house. Singing alongside professional guest artists from places like the Metropolitan Opera and LA Opera has provided invaluable teaching moments for our kids that go way deeper than just attending an opera as an audience member.

Young Artist Rhett Speer in a coaching with Ojai Youth Opera collaborative pianist Raelynn Clare--Photo by Kevin King

Young Artist Rhett Speer in a coaching with Ojai Youth Opera collaborative pianist Raelynn Clare–Photo by Kevin King

Can you speak about any community programs the Ojai Youth Opera is involved in, and how the young musicians are engaged in that process?

We have been funded by the City of Ojai Arts Council Commission and the Ojai Women’s Fund to offer free opera outreach to schools in the Ojai and Ventura County unified school districts through a program we call “Ojai creates Opera.” We also host a two-week opera immersion workshop every summer in August at the Ojai Valley School that is open to any young singer who is curious about the operatic art form and wishes to have a deep enrichment experience. Kids ages seven to eighteen have attended the workshop from in and around the Ojai area, as well as sleepaway students from as far as the Bay area, to Turkey and France. The two week immersion is always bi-lingual and focuses on the multi-disciplinary aspects of the art form. This summer’s workshop is focused on French chanson and opera. So far, our outreach programs have reached over 4,000 school-aged kids in our community and the surrounding areas since 2014.

In an interview in the Spring 2019 issue of Ojai Quarterly, you mention that Ojai Youth Opera strives to present material with a “socially conscious message.” Which of those messages seem the most relevant to the young musicians and their audiences?

In 2017, we produced Hans Kraśa’s work, Brundibár, which was written in Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II. I had written additional dialogue to bookend the show. We decided to present living histories of the original cast, so each of our company members researched not only who their character was in the show, but who the actual singer was playing their role during the war. Some of our company members were able to track down and trace some of the last surviving cast members of Brundibár and have conversations with them. Our kids shared that having that connection to the past and a better understanding of how, despite existing in the most unspeakable of conditions, this group of children chose to create a work of art to spread hope instead of despair was a message that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Our cast had conversations about the rise of nationalism, anti-semitism, and bigotry that is spreading not only here in our country but around the world. Doing the show allowed us the opportunity to have more nuanced conversations about how not to be a bystander and how to recognize these patterns to help shift and change the trajectory of our future.

With Nightingale and the Tower, a lot of the conversation with the cast seems to be focused on how they all feel like they could stand to have more time in nature and how social media and screen time is affecting their creativity and productivity. We’ve talked about how this is not necessarily a cautionary tale, but more of a question to be asked about how we can all better utilize technology to bring us closer together and unlock our full creative potential and the greater good, rather than manipulating it as a tool for divisiveness and alienation.

OYO GALA Film 2018 from Horsefly Films Rare Equine Trust on Vimeo.