Until his run-in with a bunch of professional "street urchins," Maurice Allard pretty much hung out exclusively with sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.
As conductor of choruses at UC Irvine and music director of the Master Chorale of Orange County, Allard had spent most of his career hearing and shaping the separate and distinct sounds of adult voices.
But several nights spent working with a young opera chorus outside the mythical Cafe Momus in 1987 convinced him that a part of his musical future should be with singers whose voices have not yet changed.
At the time, he had been working temporarily with Opera Pacific as chorus master for the company's production of Puccini's "La Boheme." He had not yet submitted his resignation as musical director of the Master Chorale; that would come in October of that year.
The "La Boheme" chorus made brief appearances in the opera, first as part of the Paris street scene outside the Cafe Momus in Act II and then again at the beginning of Act III.
"They were marvelous and so receptive, and I just loved working with them," Allard said of the children playing the street urchins. "I've always been a teacher and always been comfortable teaching, and I figured I'd just treat them like adults, and they responded to that. It was a brand new idea for me."
Allard has used that approach as the basis for his Allard Academy, a multidisciplinary school of performing arts intended mainly for children 14 and younger. The school offers 21 classes in singing, acting, musical theater and basic music and movement taught by six staff teachers supervised by Allard.
Allard said there are nearly 200 students enrolled, ranging in age from 2 to 14, plus a few who are older.
Those ages 2 through 5 attend their Allard classes in music and movement at the Newport Ballet Academy in Costa Mesa. In these, the children participate in movement exercises and singing and are introduced to the basics of keyboard and other simple musical instruments. Classes for children older than 5 are taught at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio and Linda's Dance Studio, both in Costa Mesa. In these, they learn the basics of performing in musical theater.
Allard himself, as part of the academy curriculum, teaches 20 private voice students from 9 to 14 years old in his Costa Mesa home.
None of it comes cheaply. Allard's private weekly voice classes cost $125 a month. Two months of weekly academy music theater classes are priced at $325 for children 5 to 8 years, the "Broadway Revue" classes for children 9 to 14 are $395 and the "Young Professionals" classes for children 15 and older are $395. Beginning and intermediate acting classes cost $375 for two months of weekly sessions. Ten sessions of music and movement classes are $85. Those students chosen by Allard to join the Allard Singers--a new regional touring and performing group--are charged $395 each for two months of weekly instruction.
Allard also conducts a weekly adult voice class in his home, but, he said, he is more devoted to carrying out an old axiom of musical instruction: Get 'em while they're young.
"I thought that if I could get them early enough and train them properly that they wouldn't have the problems that some adults have," Allard said of his philosophy of teaching singers. "I have this one 5-year-old boy who knows he wants to be a singer, and he can get right up and sing now. At parties, he just gets up and sings. It's incredible."
Allard said that although much of his career has centered on conducting and performing, "I've never stopped teaching singing. I've taught it for 38 years, both privately and at the university level. (The academy) evolved out of my passion for teaching, which is the thing I enjoy doing most."
The other disciplines taught through the academy became part of the curriculum partly as a result of Allard's own professional diversification after he left the Master Chorale. He began serving as the host of an arts talk show on local cable TV, writing musical criticism and, last year, studying acting with Lynette Katselas, a Hollywood coach who now teaches at his academy.
He has since landed a role in a credit card commercial that "paid well and sort of inspired me."
"I've got a million irons in the fire now," he said. "I'm doing a lot of offbeat things that I've never done before, and I just love it. The acting is something very new. Performing was never a problem for me, but straight acting is more complicated."
A return to conducting a large chorus is not in his plans, Allard said, although he did say that a smaller vocal ensemble under his direction is "in the works."
When Allard left the Master Chorale--over what he said was a dispute with the chorale board of directors about the direction of the ensemble and its pops-oriented subgroup, the Californians--he decided that he "wanted to get out of the public eye. The pressure of PR and fund raising became a little too much for me. I got burned out with all the fringe activities it takes. I'm busier than I've ever been now, but I can control my time."
A good part of that time is now spent helping children improve upon something they do naturally, Allard said.
"Leonard Bernstein said that every person is born with a song in his soul," Allard said. "But over the course of time it gets programmed out. I love what I'm doing now. You'd be amazed how many kids just love to get up and sing."