116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — No one will be howling onstage during the school tour of “Charlie and the Wolf,” but the students in the audience may howl at the antics unfolding when jazz sax legend Charlie Parker meets Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the 21st century.
Cedar Rapids Opera commissioned the children’s opera, premiering this week and traveling through at least six local elementary schools. Two public performances also are planned around the opera company’s Juneteenth celebrations this summer at the Iowa Children’s Museum in Coralville and the Cedar Rapids Public Library.
With music by four-time Grammy-nominated composer David Ragland Jr. and lyrics by Mary McCallum, both based in Nashville, the half-hour production not only serves as a portal to the world of opera, but uses music lessons to explore themes of diversity, equity and inclusion that Parker and Mozart faced as child prodigies who eventually changed the face of music two centuries apart.
The performers are members of Cedar Rapids Opera’s Smith Young Artists program, meaning they’re still in college or just beginning their careers. Opera company veterans Chad Sonka, from the voice faculty at Iowa State University in Ames, is directing the show, and Gail Williams is serving as musical director and accompanying on host schools’ pianos.
The show’s creators were in Cedar Rapids this past week to see their show on its feet for the first time, which they both enjoyed.
“I liked it a lot,” Ragland said Friday afternoon, after seeing a previous rehearsal. “I like how they brought it to life.”
Set in an elementary music classroom, teacher Miss Jones (Jade Dasha of Chicago) wants to pair Logan (Antoinette Pompe van Meerdervoort from Indiana University) with another student who is alone, explaining that she wants every student to see a smiling face and feel welcome. But Logan balks, because she has nothing in common with that classmate, so what would they ever talk about?
Miss Jones counters: “It’s good to engage with others who aren’t exactly like you.”
Citing the principles of rhythm, harmony, melody and improvisation, she explains: “We all have a voice that deserves to be heard. We are all different, we are all unique, there’s something special in you and me. What’s inside us should not divide us. Your voice and my voice together make harmony.”
Logan, who already has grumbled about why kids even have to go to school, isn’t buying it. “Music class gives me the blues,” she says, before falling into a dreamland. In a flash, she meets Parker (graduate student Jacob Lay from Atlanta, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Simpson College in Indianola) and Mozart (Sam Dubin from Nice, France, a recent graduate of the Chicago Conservatory for Performing Arts). And the fun Logan is seeking ensues — especially from Mozart, who punctuates everything with a flourish.
Audiences will even get in on the action a time or two, with clapping and dancing. They’ll also hear a variety of music styles, from classical and baroque to jazz and blues, with bits of dialogue connecting the thoughts.
“There’s a lot of variety melded in to keep it interesting and keep the flow, so nobody gets bored,” Ragland said.
“It’s about how music connects us all,” playwright McCallum said. “That even though it might seem like you have nothing in common with someone on the surface, if you just looked at Charlie Parker and Wolfgang, you would think these two have nothing in common — they’re the farthest apart they can be.
“But when you really dig into it, some of the things that they went through were similar. They both faced their challenges in terms of getting their music heard and getting people to just buy into what they were selling — what they were doing. To think about how famous and popular they are today, when they were back there struggling, it was entirely different.”
So the main lesson, she said, is “just how we should really look below the surface and really dig for those things that bring us together, instead of always trying to look at what makes us different.”
Ragland also hopes young viewers “become more interested in music and music creation, and maybe want to take up an instrument. Or go see the band director and say, ‘Hey, we saw ‘Charlie and the Wolf’ — can I play an instrument?’ Or go join choir after hearing the singers. So hopefully pique their interest in becoming involved musically.”
Sonka, who has had various roles with Cedar Rapids Opera onstage and behind the scenes, including the title role in “Man of La Mancha” in 2015, is especially pleased to direct “Charlie and the Wolf.”
“I love anytime that we get to premiere something new in opera — something that's fresh, and something that speaks to children beautifully, without talking down to them,” Sonka said. “This opera … educates young students on the importance of everything from Mozart to Charlie Parker to diversity, not only in music, but in people and engaging and accepting people as they are. And this show does it so effectively and efficiently and beautifully.”
He directed last year’s school show, which was offered virtually, so he’s relishing the chance to step back into live performance.
“When a show is written for an outreach purpose, it is designed to really be spoken to that,” he said. ”When you think of an opera like ‘Cosi fan tutte,’ there is some distance that occurs. But in this kind of opera, the singers are going to be right there and even sometimes engaging with the students.
“It leaves an indelible mark on them and on opera, so by the time they get to be in their teens and 20s they want to go see something like ‘Cosi fan tutte’ and get the grand spectacle which we all love about opera,” he noted, citing Cedar Rapids Opera’s upcoming main stage production Jan. 20 and 22 at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids.
“But these kinds of shows have that more intimate, personal touch that you don't always get at that age with a show.”
Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org