How do you continue to engage young people in the community and enrich existing music curriculum when you are not able to bring people to the opera? How do you pivot your educational mission during a time of social distancing? 

Introducing Opera on the Spot, a fun and interactive online program launched last week by Austin Opera. Out of both necessity and a desire to connect with students, arts educators, and their families, Opera on the Spot was developed by Director of Education Debra Erck and Austin Opera teaching artist Julie SilvaThe new offering is geared towards young students who actively participate in the creative process as they learn about operaThis program is mobile, accessible, and perfect for students of all ages.

Inside Indy Terrace sat down with Ms. Silva to find out more about Opera on the Spot, her career as an opera singer, and her adventures as a teaching artist for Austin Opera. 

Q: Julie, how did you begin singing with Austin Opera?

A: My first show with Austin Opera was Verdi’s Aïda in 2015, singing with the chorus. Since then, I have sung in several shows with Austin Opera, including recently as The Page in Verdi’s Rigoletto. I love every time I get to work with the amazing team at Austin Opera!

Q: Describe for us your work as an Austin Opera teaching artist.

A: As a teaching artist for Opera Treasure Chest Live (OTC Live), I bring opera to students in elementary schools across the Central Texas area, accompanied by one of Austin Opera’s awesome pianists. In an OTC Live presentation, I sing a selection of arias in several languages and introduce students to new vocabulary words like “aria,” “Bravo!”, and “soprano/mezzo/tenor/bass.” We discuss the many different careers that contribute to an opera production. My favorite part of the presentation is when students take part in a scene from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro both onstage as actors, and offstage, as costume and lighting designers! Each OTC Live visit is like an interactive opera recital, specially catered for kids!

Q: What do you enjoy most about being a teaching artist?

A: I enjoy finding creative ways to share opera with such curious audiences, many of whom are hearing opera live for the first time! The students ask great questions, and they’re a blast to interact with!

Julie Silva with Nyle Matsuoka at Blake Manor Elementary, Manor ISD

Q: What has changed for you since the “stay-at-home” orders went into place?

A: Typically, I, like many musicians, maintain a busy schedule juggling various gigs, rehearsals, and travel. The current global health crisis and resulting “stay-at-home” orders have caused me to cancel travel plans, miss out on exciting (now postponed) performances, and spend much more time at home than usual. However, these changes in my day-to-day pale in comparison to the issues many in the world are facing right now, and I’m grateful that even though productions have been postponed/canceled, I have the resources that allow me to continue to polish up repertoire and prepare new projects. During these times, I am reminded of the proverb – “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and I’m excited about the innovative projects in opera and the greater performing arts world that have arisen from the necessity to keep the performing arts alive when we can’t be together in-person.

Ms. Silva dressed “in character” as Cherubino from Le nozze di Figaro by Mozart

In collaboration with Austin Opera’s Director of Education Debra Erck and AISD Hill Elementary School’s Music Teacher Steve Williams, we created a way for me to continue sharing the art of opera with students, but now via Zoom, in the program Opera on the Spot. Compared to OTC Live, Opera on the Spot uses the students’ own creativity as the primary element of the operatic presentation. Instead of an in-person presentation asking for students to be costume designers, lighting designers, and actors, I invite all of the students to become lyricists where students write their own lyrics to an “improv” opera aria that uses a familiar operatic tune. Similar to OTC Live, I perform an opera aria in its original format and share more about opera including how to use “Bravo!” (this time paired with the “hands clap” reaction emoji). I then perform the students’ new lyrical creations (often with added props tied to their unique stories) all accompanied by recordings of Austin Opera’s fantastic Principal Coach and Pianist Nyle Matsuoka.

A Fun ‘behind-the-scenes’ note: Opera on the Spot has run incredibly smoothly on the technical side of things due to the help of an awesome informal set designer, stage manager, and costume/prop assistant extraordinaire – my husband! He was especially excited to put his whiteboard skills to good use for my backdrop.

Q: Anything else you would like to share with our readers?

A: Even though we can’t perform in large opera halls right now, there are many of us classical musicians still creating lots of art online and spending time at home preparing repertoire. So opera fans, support your beloved musicians and be ready for some great performances when we can gather in public spaces again!

Julie Silva, mezzo-soprano, began singing with Austin Opera soon after earning her MM in Vocal Performance from the University of North Texas in 2014. Most recently, she performed the role of 2nd Woman in LOLA’s production of Dido and Aeneas. In 2019 she was the Alto Soloist for Handel’s Messiah in Guatemala, sang the role of Carmen with Mediterranean Opera Studio and Festival in Sicily, and performed on the Long Center stage as the page in Austin Opera’s production of Rigoletto.

Opera on the Spot was a perfect way for me to connect with my second graders and give them a taste of something they would have missed out on this school year. Coordinating with Debra Erck and Julie Silva was collaborative and easy and I was happy to offer this special online meet-up. Second graders enjoyed hearing their words from an opera singer’s voice. They were engaged and interested in finding out about opera. Julie was friendly and inviting, especially in discussing the origins of each student’s aria.”

-Steve Williams, Hill Elementary

Educators who are interested in taking advantage of this program before the end of the current school year are encouraged to contact Debra Erck at [email protected] for more information. Many thanks to the second grade students at Hill Elementary and their music teacher, Steve “Maestro” Williams for piloting this new program with us.