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Youngsters Keep in Tune at Sun Valley Opera School

December 25, 1987|MIKE WYMA

The stage, in the director's words, is the "size of a postage stamp." The footlights are mounted in a wooden trough and moved in just before performances. Audience members sit on one of 32 folding chairs or on the floor.

Outside, trucks rumble along Sunland Boulevard, headed for the Golden State Freeway. Next door is a veterinary. Just to the west are the auto wrecking and gravel pit sections of Sun Valley.

This is about the last place one might expect to find opera, or a school that grants bachelor's degrees in music. But, through the determination of Lurrine Burgess, who admits to a lifelong "obsession with music," that is exactly what one encounters.

The degrees are earned by adults, of course, but the opera is performed by children. Called the Young Musical Theatre, the company is part of the Southern California Conservatory of Music, which Burgess founded in 1971.

The nine members of the current troupe range in age from 8 to 13. Their production of "Moufflou," the story of a poor Italian family forced to sell a beloved dog, will be staged Saturday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Whereas most kids think of high C as a fruit drink, Burgess' opera students know it as one of the more elusive notes they must hit during performances. And hit it they do.

"We don't recognize tone-deafness," said Burgess, 61. "If children can't stay on pitch when they come in, we teach them. We teach them how to listen, which is the key."

Burgess is a rapid speaker given to frequent hand gestures. She works 12- to 14-hour days. She believes in getting the most from her students.

"Some people wouldn't think that children can do opera, but it's like the bumblebee," she said. "Aeronautically, it's not supposed to fly, but it doesn't know that."

The Young Musical Theatre does a different opera every 12 weeks, drawing from a repertoire of 12 scores written for children by teachers at the conservatory. Some of the others are "Pinocchio," "Robin Hood" and "Mother Goose." The operas run about an hour in length.

"The stories are abridged, compared to a standard opera, because we don't want to tax the children's voices," said Burgess. "The music's somewhat simpler, but we still give them solos, chorus work, duets in counterpoint, trios--the whole range. 'Moufflou' is especially complicated because it's styled after Italian opera, and there are 24 parts."

Students are required to learn every part and play several of them during each performance. In addition, throughout the show's run, the children trade roles so that each plays both the lesser and the starring parts. Burgess said this egalitarian approach to casting works much better than one might expect.

"We've seen so many miracles, it's easy to resist the temptation to put the good kids out in front and the new ones in back," said Burgess. "We want everyone to have a chance to grow and, besides, it's an unknown factor how children will work in performances. You wouldn't believe what happens to some of these shy, quiet children when it's time to perform."

The mother of one veteran performer agreed. Sylvia Son said that, after six productions with the opera, 8-year-old Stacy Son is a well-established ham.

"But the first show she went into, it was a surprise to me," the Sunland woman said. "She had been quiet in the rehearsals, and she was a little shy. I wondered if I'd even hear her, but she really sang. She drowned some of the other kids out, and they were kids who had been in it before."

Performances by the Young Musical Theatre are notable for their charm and sense of intimacy. Costumes are rich, and the sound system for the tape-recorded orchestral accompaniment is a good one. Burgess occasionally jumps in with live piano to help singers who wander off pitch. And, when a child forgets a line--all of which are sung rather than spoken--other cast members supply the missing words.

"Children don't audition to be a part of it," Burgess said of the enrollment process. "Anyone can join, but they have to come to rehearsals, they have to learn the parts and they have to obey the rules. Our purpose is not to showcase the conservatory, it's to help the kids."

The Southern California Conservatory of Music has about 125 students, mostly adults, Burgess said, with 15 of them taking classes toward a bachelor's degree in music. Degree students must fulfill general education requirements at other colleges and transfer the credits to the conservatory. Requirements are sufficiently strict so that only four people have earned degrees in the 12 years they have been offered, Burgess said.

One of them is Sally Wolf, a librarian who wrote the music for "Moufflou" and several other children's operas. Burgess wrote most of the librettos. In the current opera, the poverty-stricken family's poodle is named Moufflou after a kind of sheep raised in Corsica.

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