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Real Children's Theater : The young cast is up to the task in the Southern California Conservatory of Music production of 'The Emperor's Nightingale.'

July 02, 1993|HEATHER W. MORGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Heather W. Morgan is a regular contributor to Valley Life

In children's theater, there's always an element of fun and surprise as the adult actors sing their songs, and whirl and twirl across the stage in dazzling costumes.

But "The Emperor's Nightingale," an opera adapted from Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale and playing at the Southern California Conservatory of Music in Sun Valley, is different.

Sure, there's singing. And there's dancing, in some pretty glitzy threads. But this performance is done entirely by children. In fact, there isn't an actor or actress over 14 to be found on the stage.

"In some ways, this show is more like kids doing it for the adults," said director Lurrine Burgess, who founded the conservatory in 1971. "But I think anyone who sees it will walk away impressed at what these children can accomplish."

Not only does the 45-minute opera include musical challenges such as intricate four-part harmonies, but the 15 students at the conservatory's Young Musical Theatre Workshop also take responsibility for behind-the-scene operations such as lighting, costumes and props.

Unlike some youth workshops, there's no star system here. Students are required to learn every part--regardless of gender--as they rotate the roles over 14 shows.

Instructing children was not Burgess' initial focus when she opened the European-style conservatory, where adults can receive an accredited bachelor of music degree. But after numerous requests from students who were also parents, she reluctantly began the youth vocal training workshop in 1976.

She soon found that children, some as young as 6 and 7, who had been labeled tone deaf, actually responded with great success to her training, she said.

"Most people think I'm crazy, but there's no such thing as tone deaf ," Burgess said. "It's all a matter of hearing, of learning how to listen. I put a child who's having difficulty in between two better singers," she said. "Usually, after about six weeks of intense work, you'll see a light come on as they're singing. And bingo! Once they really hear the pitch, they've got it. Then we work on keeping up the concentration."

Workshops consist of 12-week semesters, with three-hour rehearsals twice a week, all culminating in the 14 performances.

Over the years, Burgess, who writes the lyrics, has acquired an extensive repertoire: for example, "The Ugly Ducking," "Snow White," "Pinocchio," "Robin Hood" and "Moufflou." The music of "The Emperor's Nightingale" is by Sally Wolf, a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Davida Ross, 8, experienced her first Young Musical Theatre Workshop performance several years ago when she went to see one of her friends in a show.

"She was hooked. She came home talking about nothing else," said her mother, Tauby Ross of Van Nuys. "It's truly unbelievable the amount of responsibility Lurrine is able to get from these kids. They all take it very seriously."

But with Hollywood looming nearby, Burgess works to keep her training pure and simple.

"This isn't about getting an agent. This isn't about becoming a star," she said. "This is about learning how to sing, period. It's about accomplishing self-respect and confidence.

"And it's also about having fun. You know, I don't just have to entertain the audience. I have to keep my performers interested, too."


What: "The Emperor's Nightingale" at Southern California Conservatory of Music, 8711 Sunland Blvd., Sun Valley.

Hours: 7:30 p.m. today, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Monday through July 9, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. July 10. Price: $4 adults, $2 children.

Call: (818) 767-6554; reservations suggested.

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