The young heroine has a bit of Cinderella in her. After wandering off from home, Nanita ends up as a servant on a ranch. As if cleaning house didn’t give her enough to do, she has to learn how to cook the rancher’s favorite dessert: flan. Before homesickness gets the best of her, though, a magical parrot leads Nanita back to her papa. The fairy tale’s happy ending arrives when she caps off her First Communion party by serving flan to everyone.
Thanks to “How Nanita Learned to Make Flan,” more than 25,000 elementary-school students in the Carolinas and north Georgia recently got a taste of Latin culture, the Spanish language – and opera. Bouncing along to rumba-flavored music by Mexican composer Enrique Gonzalez-Medina, the show was the latest installment of Opera Xpress, a touring program that Opera Carolina has run for four decades.
“We get feedback from (adult) audience members. They say their first experience of opera was in school with a touring show,” says James Meena, Opera Carolina’s general director. [You probably first saw opera in one of these surprising places.]
This year’s performances of “How Nanita Learned to Make Flan” made up just one ingredient in the company’s recipe for cooking up a bigger audience for opera.
Responses to questionnaires and other audience input show that people who try out opera nowadays arrive with little idea of what’s in store, Meena says. But there’s an upside: What the public does have is curiosity. When Opera Carolina staged Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” last fall, Meena says, 22 percent of the people who responded to program-booklet surveys said that was their first opera.
“That’s good – and it’s kind of daunting,” Meena says.
So the company strives to stir up interest however it can.
Lessons, hooks and soundtracks
Well before Opera Xpress arrives at a school, it sends study guides to help teachers prepare their students. The guide to “How Nanita Learned to Make Flan” offered basics about opera, a guide to the Spanish words sprinkled through the text, and hands-on craft projects.
Opera Carolina’s Student Night at the Opera aims at middle- and high-schoolers. Five hundred to 1,000 of them attend the dress rehearsal of each Belk Theater production, and here again, study guides help tune them in. The online guide for this month’s pairing of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Aleko” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” includes rundowns of the plots and characters, links to recorded excerpts, and chatty introductions to the composers.
“Although Ruggero Leoncavallo wasn’t technically a one-hit wonder, he is primarily remembered for the big hit on our double bill,” begins the mini-biography of the “Pagliacci” creator.
The company even provides a soundtrack to the school day. Each month, its Minds on Music program sends CDs spotlighting classical composers to 12 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools campuses. The subjects aren’t just opera composers or big-name Europeans: April’s roster includes France’s Claude Debussy, Felix Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny and ragtime great Scott Joplin. The schools play the recordings during lunch breaks and class change.
“We hear from teachers that this has a positive impact on kids during the day,” Meena says. “It changes the attitude and atmosphere in the school.”
And for the grownups?
Opera Carolina has its eye on adults, too. Because many of the first-timers are millennials and other relatively young people, the company marshals social media: It send out behind-the-scenes photos and other morsels to more than 5,100 Twitter followers, for instance. Its Bravo! Young Professionals auxiliary stages social events. Before every production, opera dinners climax with showcases of the coming opera’s juiciest music for people of all ages.
“They want to know. They’re curious,” Meena says. “That’s the fun part.”