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A chorus takes wing

It's a flight of fantasy, and no small task, as the L.A. Children's Chorus goes big time, staging its first grown-up opera.

July 08, 2007|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

ON a balmy Sunday in early June, Grant Gershon takes the podium, ready to rehearse yet another show with yet another ensemble. The music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale has helped launch many challenging pieces. This assignment, however, is a little different.

It does involve a new work -- an opera, "Keepers of the Night," by Peter Ash and Donald Sturrock -- and a score that Gershon says is "as sophisticated as anything that appears at the Dorothy Chandler." But "Keepers," which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, is the rare opera intended to be performed primarily by kids but enjoyed by a broader audience.

"This isn't just a young person's thing," says director Corey Madden. "It's a very smart and funny fable about the opera world and about the power of the young to see through adult social and artistic pretensions."

Sturrock and Ash's story line follows the adventures of the four Knight children, who go camping in their backyard but end up in the imaginary forest of Arcadia, where a lovers' quarrel between an owl and the moon leads to mischief, magic and revolution.

The half-million-dollar project -- which will run from Thursday through Sunday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale -- is the most ambitious undertaking in LACC's 21-year history. The organization has gained national acclaim for its concerts and appearances with the Master Chorale, Los Angeles Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But it has never attempted anything on this scale. That's why it has enlisted the aid of such veterans as Gershon, Madden, mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman, baritone Malcolm MacKenzie and soprano Lynette Tapia. (The other guest soloist is soprano Lauren Libaw, a chorus alumna who is studying music at Yale.)

In some ways, though, the stars will be 65 'tweens and teens, most of whom will perform in groups representing bats, mosquitoes and other creatures. Since the fall, artistic director Anne Tomlinson and her staff have guided the entire chorus through the complex score. Now Madden is combining four weeks of rehearsal with an "opera camp" designed to introduce cast members to the basics of stage life. The first lesson -- one everyone has picked up all too quickly -- is that the success of something years in the making can depend on one month of preproduction frenzy.

"This will be quite a voyage of discovery for all of us," says Gershon on that first day of "Keepers" camp. Comfortably casual in a polo shirt and jeans, he smiles as he looks around the Fellowship Hall at Pasadena Presbyterian Church, where LACC is based. The singers -- arrayed before him in rows of chairs -- are also dressed for an afternoon by the pool, but their demeanor is all business; they sit stiffly erect, eyes focused, pencils poised to annotate the scores laid across their laps.

Gershon asks to hear "The Hymn to the Tree," the opera's central theme. He leans into the music, his arms tracing elegant arcs in the air. As their voices float through the cavernous hall, the kids start to relax.

"That's going to be gorgeous," Gershon says after they finish. He offers suggestions -- exaggerate your words, don't let the energy fall -- then says what he will repeat a lot in coming weeks: "Don't worry. We'll work on that."

A break is announced. The room erupts into squeals of laughter and the squish of sneakers.

"I want to give them the sense that they can be silly or take risks," Gershon says later. "They are impeccably prepared, but they have to explore how to use their voices as actors. That involves leaving some of their preconceived notions of classical singing at the doorstep."

Working with young artists has its challenges. "Some are shyer or have to be coaxed," he says. There also are benefits. "At the opening of any rehearsal, there's trepidation. Everybody's sniffing each other out. With grown-ups, that can take a week or two. But we got past that a lot more quickly here."

Dream comes to fruition

THE Children's Chorus started with a couple of dozen kids, mainly from Pasadena; now, there are 231 members from Los Angeles and Orange counties. The organization consists of four choirs -- preparatory, apprentice, intermediate and concert -- and a small chamber group. Applicants as young as 8 may audition, and each year between a third and a half are accepted. Girls can stay until they graduate from high school; boys leave when their voices change. Families pay annual tuition of up to $1,200 and commit to a hefty schedule of rehearsals, performances and music theory classes.

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