Kopachuck Middle School students, as well as faculty, staff members and others on hand, enjoy a special performance last Wednesday morning when the Seattle Opera put on a rendition of “Heron and the Salmon Girl” with a little bit of help from the school choir.
The one-act opera is the first in a trilogy of operas called “Our Earth.” Conceived and designed with a younger audience in mind, and sung in English, the story focuses on a spring when the salmon fail to return to the sea. A colorful array of characters — a hungry orca, a story-telling heron, a wise turtle and a grumpy fisherman — embark on a journey to find out where the fish have gone.
It was likely the first encounter with opera for many of the students at Kopachuck Middle School, although, by a show of hands, it seemed plenty had witnessed at least one opera before.
The performance featured Rachel DeShon’s high, clear soprano in the part of the energetic, anxious Salmon Girl, who transforms from a girl named Alitsa to a fish and back again, as she braves a towering fisherman, a storm and the emotions of discovering her long-lost brother in a most unlikely place: Seattle.
It tuns out that DeShon has relatives in Gig Harbor. She was born and raised in Seattle, but she stayed at her uncle’s house in Gig Harbor the night before the performance at Kopachuck.
Fellow soprano Sonia Perez portrays Heron, the opera’s storyteller and the first to speak. She taught the audience how to say her name, and others, in Lushootseed, a language of the native Salish tribe.
Rounding out the cast were John Coons, as the orca and Salmon Girl’s brother, and Thomas Thompson, as the fisherman and turtle. Dwight Beckmeyer served as the pianist.
In keeping with the nature of the performance, the set and costumes were simple. Stage flats and basic props evoked watery imagery, as well as the skyline of the Emerald City. A jacket and headgear for most performers went a long way toward creating a character.
In the case of Salmon Girl, a dress covered in sequins in a range of pale pinkish-orange to light pink sufficed to represent the hue of salmon flesh.
Kopachuck choir director Alison Ellis, who also teaches at Peninsula High School, helped the choir prepare for its role alongside professionals. The day of the performance was the first time the Seattle Opera singers and the children worked together, she said, with the pros earlier in the day instructing the children who was to do what and where to go in terms of choreography.
“The kids are like nervous cats in the back,” Ellis said shortly before the start of the show.
The performance went smoothly. The 58-member children’s choir came in intermittently, sang in harmony and waved blue-colored tissues up and down to represent water.
“Weren’t they wonderful?” an excited Ellis asked after the final bows had been taken. The smiles on students’ faces and others in the audience confirmed the answer.
Following the performance, students asked questions of the opera singers and actors. Most focused on the backgrounds of the Seattle Opera members and the symbology that was part of the opera.
Middle-schoolers weren’t the only ones who were impressed with the performance.
Peninsula High School student and singing prodigy Jackson Mitchell, whose mentor is Ellis, also liked it.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “Oh, I liked it. The singers were phenomenal and very free with their voices.”
Baritone Mitchell, 18, studies classical music and hopes to be an opera singer in the future. He said he recently had been singing all over the country as part of auditions to get into music school, and he’s anxious to find out where he will be studying. His first choice is the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
Kopachuck Middle School Principal Iva Scott said the in-school performance makes opera more approachable and reachable to students.
“It opens up a different world to them,” she said. “That’s the exciting piece of doing it with this age group.”Reporter Brett Davis can be reached at 253-358-4151 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @gateway_brett.