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Vocal Motion : Brea-Olinda's Allison Koop Builds Her Life Around a Dream to Sing Opera


Excuse whatever social sin has been committed, but the other evening over sushi, my husband and I couldn't avoid listening in on a conversation at a neighboring table.

Seated were a half dozen late and post-Gen Xers who had obviously come by after seeing the Sunday afternoon performance of "Madama Butterfly" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. They pontificated on the rest of the world's ignorance of their talents, the reason for their starving-artist status. We chuckled. Then their blaring statements turned to the Youth of Today. I couldn't help myself listening here; it is, after all, a favorite topic of mine.

One after another mused how today's young, fast-food mentality thinks John Tesh is classical music and Madonna a diva. Teens today lack the ability and patience to comprehend the complexity of all classical art, declared a bearded 30ish composer. His friends bobbed their heads in agreement. In fact, continued another, they are a lost generation.

I stuffed in another piece of octopus to keep from speaking out. I wanted to interrupt their diatribe and tell them about Allison Koop, a Brea-Olinda High senior whose life revolves around singing classical music.

The 17-year-old mezzo-soprano has crammed her days with private voice lessons, school chamber choir, extracurricular state choir groups and school musical theater. That's in addition to honor classes (she's a National Honor Society member and secretary of the Brea chapter) and, until this year, the varsity swim team.

Allison's dream: to become an operatic actress.

"It's the challenge that draws me to it," says Allison. "Just about anybody can do musical theater. Singing pop on the radio doesn't require a ton of talent. But singing opera is like playing an instrument."

At a voice lesson on a recent Friday, Allison's instrument is not at its peak.

She's been zipping around the country auditioning at universities, and the dragging jet lag two days later--combined with a couple all-nighters catching up on homework--has resulted in sniffles and a scratchy throat. Still, her scales impress the photographer and me.

Her teacher, Anne Moreno, is less impressed. They start in on a piece, teacher at the piano, student standing to her left.

"Your fourth is too low," Moreno snaps. There is a hint of sweetness, though. At 74, she has had a lifetime of pupils, and she's got a thick, oversized scrapbook to prove it.

Allison is accustomed to her after four years; Moreno's students expect her demands of complete attention, lyric comprehension, knowledge of composers. She pushes them to improve and, above all, have more heart.

Add pronunciation to the list. Training has led Allison to study works in the languages of classical music: French, Italian, Latin. She has honed her basic pronunciation and accents, although not in school. There she opted to take three years of Japanese. It came in handy with the exchange students who stayed in her home and during the summer she spent in Japan.

After a session filled with corrections, abrupt interruptions mid-phrase and constant encouragement, Moreno quickly changes from tough-love instructor to gushing promoter.

"Allison has a good stage presence," she says, with insistence and pride. "She just comes alive."

Allison started showing signs of her talent while still in kindergarten. You've heard it before: the ones who have always been performing for the family and couldn't wait to get on stage in the first grade play. She took piano lessons for a few years, then quit, turning to choir in junior high and collecting tapes of musical theater. Throughout high school, she has immersed herself in song.

This month the teen-ager, who abides by some I'll-sleep-when-I'm-dead rule, spent a couple of days shadowing a real, live, employed opera singer.

Career shadowing is a required credit for seniors to graduate at Allison's school, and generally students spend a brief afternoon with mentors. A letter, several calls and four months later, Allison was hooked up with mezzo-soprano Robin Lee Parkin through Opera Pacific's community programs.

The partnership was a first for Opera Pacific; most of its connection with high school students has been through its youth opera nights (which bring in 2,000 kids and teens four times a year) and its Overture Company (a community outreach program that goes into schools and exposes more than 150,000 students in Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside counties to opera and musical theater).

Parkin, a participant in the Overture Company for the past four years, could give Allison a "true picture of the less than glamorous hard work that actors go through," says program director Kevin Crysler. "Placing her with a diva wouldn't give (Allison) the entire picture."

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