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February 2014
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Opera Singers As Motivational Speakers?

Eric Owens and Ana Maria Martinez addressing high school students, c. Andrew Cioffi

Eric Owens and Ana Maria Martinez addressing high school students, c. Andrew Cioffi

Lyric Opera: Nurturing Community through Art

Lyric Opera of Chicago announced a new kind of role on Tuesday: singers Ana María Martínez and Eric Owens were named community ambassadors. The two opera stars, both headlining Lyric’s Rusalka, are charged with bringing a little opera (minus the 3,500-seat theater) to different doorsteps in the community.

On their first day, however, they burned the script to typical in-school performances. During a visit to Young Women’s Leadership Charter School on Chicago’s south side, they didn’t sing (though there were a couple video clips). Also, they talked about opera only part of the time.

Instead, much of the singers’ visit focused on what could be characterized as life lessons; things learned through their experiences in opera, like the importance of using your greatest gifts; hard work; respect for others, respect for oneself; humility; dealing with rejection; recognizing a harmful relationship; and, yes, finding courage when the support system fails.

Clearly, Lyric Opera’s new ambassadors are delivering a message that goes deeper than listening to music: art can heal a community. The singers struck a somewhat serious tone suggesting they’ve had experience with today’s youth – teens face too many choices, many of them dangerous. Owens spoke about the deep satisfaction of doing “something you love, where everyone is giving their all.” He grinned broadly about the closeness he felt to Rusalka’s cast, saying we benefit from sharing experiences that create a “focused energy” with other people.

Owens_Martinez_YWLCS_students_c.Andrew Cioffi

Eric Owens and Ana Maria Martinez with students from Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, photo by Andrew Cioffi

Ms. Martínez added, “an opera begins as an idea in someone’s mind.” The composers found their gift. She urged the girls to find their own gift within, and nurture it. She also counseled them to trust a gut feeling, when that “tightness in the stomach is telling you something isn’t right.”

The girls at Young Women’s Leadership Charter School attended La traviata in the fall, and have been studying Rusalka. They were ready to greet Eric Owens and Ana María Martínez with thoughtful questions like, “When the Rusalka character loses her voice, how does a singer stay in the action?” “Do you really learn these different languages?” One student asked, “Did your parents support you or did they think that art is a waste of time?”

Lyric Opera’s community ambassadors offered a range of experiences, from adapting to a new director to the physicality of singing. They spoke about the poignancy of Rusalka‘s story and how it teaches us something about our humanity. The ambassadors were straightforward with these kids: life is not a fairytale. At the same time Ms. Martínez added, “You have everything you need already.” Quoting Joseph Campbell, she told them, “Follow your bliss.”

“I can really tell that they’re interested about what they do. They really have a passion for singing, and they also have amazing voices. They have to have really strong voices…I want to look more at the opera actually.”

—Aria Woods, student at Women’s Leadership Charter School

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Rusalka with Ana María Martínez and Eric Owens runs through March 16. WFMT’s opening night broadcast begins on Saturday at 7:15 pm.

The community ambassadors program is part of Lyric Unlimited, an initiative of Lyric’s creative consultant Renée Fleming, music director Sir Andrew Davis, and general director Anthony Freud. In past seasons, Ana María Martínez has visited this and other Chicago Public Schools through Lyric’s Vocal Partnership Program. Both Ana María Martínez and Eric Owens are scheduled to return to Chicago in subsequent seasons and continue their role as ambassadors.

  • Carolyn

    Wonderful post…thanks, Noel

  • James Centanni

    The Lyric is doing a wonderful job of bring more young people into the Opera House!