'Fun' children's opera has a serious message

arts / Article

The Blue Mice get ready to stir up some trouble.

In his tale of the star-bellied sneetches, Dr. Seuss made a compelling and lasting case against racism and discrimination, and made it fun to read and look at all the while.

The arts are ideal for getting complex ideas across, especially to young people, and this weekend at the Banyan Bowl in Pinecrest, Orchestra Miami will mount a production of The Mice War, a children’s opera by the American composer David Chesky.

The opera, first performed in 2007, concerns the Blue Mice, industrious, pink cheese-eating rodents of the north, and the Red Mice, the leisure-loving, yellow cheese-eating rodents of the south. The Blue Mice decide that in order to make more money, they’re going to have to go to war, and decide to stoke the flames by raising fears about what would happen if the Red Mice invaded and forced the Blue Mice to eat yellow cheese.

It’s a highly enjoyable 50-minute spectacle, says Orchestra Miami founder Elaine Rinaldi, who saw a preview performance of the work in New York when composer Chesky invited her to see it.

The preview was done at an elementary school, “and I saw how well it worked in that setting. I loved how there was this very big message presented in a very palatable, accessible manner. The piece is essentially a comedy and the kids responded really well to it,” Rinaldi wrote in an email from Binghamton, N.Y., where she’s conducting Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the Tri-Cities Opera this week.

“I saw that it would be a perfect opportunity to bring live music into schools, give teachers an opportunity to talk to their students about non-violence and introduce kids to opera/classical music all at the same time,” she wrote.

Orchestra Miami has already brought the show into five elementary schools in Miami-Dade County, and will add four more before the run is over. All of the schools are in economically challenged areas, she wrote.

“Most of these have extremely limited music/art programs and are in very low-income neighborhoods where kids are not likely to have opportunities to attend live performances,” she wrote.

So far, the in-school performances have been a hit.

“If you don’t give a child any preconceived ideas that opera is something that's ‘boring’ or ‘grown-up,’ then there won't be a negative reaction to it. From the child’s perspective, they’re experiencing a funny piece of theater — one doesn't have to label it anything,” Rinaldi wrote. “There is a fair amount of spoken dialogue in this piece, which also makes it more approachable. So far, the cast/musicians have had nothing but very enthusiastic, positive responses from the children.”

The opera is being presented with the help of three members of Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artists program. Baritone Carlton Ford sings the role of Gen. Kan of the Blue Mice, mezzo Raehann Bryce-Davis sings Albert, the Blue Mouse who protests the war, and baritone Thomas Lehman is King Tashi of the Red Mice.

They’re accompanied by an eight-person orchestral ensemble of flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, double bass, trumpet, harp and percussion, wrote Rinaldi, who describes the music as “pure Chesky … funky, fun, jazzy, extremely rhythmic, catchy and really good.”

Amid all the hijinks and fun is a serious message about the absurdity of war, and Rinaldi said that was a key reason for wanting to bring the show to Miami-Dade County.

“I wanted to do this production now because it seems to me that we are living in a society which has been increasingly more violent. We have seen an unprecedented surge in mass shootings, often by children. From my perspective, it seems that people in general are much more confrontational than when I was younger,” she wrote. “We’re more defensive, argumentative, more eager to ‘draw a line in the sand’ rather than trying to work together to solve our problems in a civil and kind manner — we only have to look at what’s going on in our nation’s political life to see examples of this.”

She also finds it a resonant message for a campaign against bullying, which she says has become “a major problem, both online and in schools.”

“I believe that a large part of the problem is the increase in extreme violence on TV, films and video games, which are so easily accessible for even very young children. War has become glorified, violence is shrugged off as something that ‘happens.’ By teaching non-violence to kids, we can try to counter some of the negative effects of this exposure,” she wrote. “I saw this piece as a real opportunity for parents and teachers to start a dialogue with our children about how to solve issues without resorting to violence.”

Sunday’s opera, which is stage-directed by A. Scott Parry and conducted by Brian Onderdonk, starts at 4 p.m. at Pinecrest Gardens’ Banyan Bowl, which Rinaldi has a special affection for. “In my humble opinion, the Banyan Bowl has some of the best natural acoustics in Miami-Dade County. It’s casual, comfortable and set in the most gorgeous natural setting in South Florida,” she wrote.

Tickets are $5 for children and $10 for adults, and can be had by calling Brown Paper Tickets at 800-838-3006 or by visiting www.OrchestraMiami.org.

“Providing people with opportunities to introduce their kids to classical music is extremely important,” Rinaldi wrote. “Classical music is all but non-existent in popular culture. If we want this kind of music to survive, then we need to provide people with these opportunities, and emphasize that classical music is for everyone, not just for those who can buy an expensive ticket.”

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