MARQUEE - Opera camp to bring a classic tale to the stage


When you think about the opera, the classic image that usually comes to mind is of a large Nordic-dressed woman singing impossibly high-pitched notes in Italian. As the obscure, Venetian folktale unfolds over the course of four hours, aristocratic audience members would be peering down through their monocles from their box seats, whispering phrases like "the librettist has really emphasized the leitmotif of this finale, well hasn't he?" In short, you probably would not picture amateur high-school students from rural, southeastern Washington.

But this summer in Walla Walla, opera isn't just for rich spectators and professional actors. You will not have to travel hundreds of miles, and, perhaps best of all, you will not have to speak Italian or German or research Scandinavian myths to understand the story.

At 7 p.m. Saturday, participants in the Walla Walla Opera Camp Workshop will be performing "Alice in Wonderland," Lewis Carroll's classic story adapted into an original operetta by local music professor Kristin Vining, at the Walla Walla High School Performing Arts Auditorium. Tickets for the event are available by donation at the door.

Saturday night's performance is the production's one and only show, and it comes at the end of a weeklong repertory experience, during which actors must learn the lyrics to all the songs and be ready to perform after just 40 hours of preparation.

The workshop, currently underway at Wa-Hi, became available to students, graduates and community members earlier this week. The project is a collaborative effort of staff and students from several schools and colleges in Walla Walla.

Brian Senter -- director of drama and dramatic arts at Wa-Hi who is directing the operetta along with Vining, Julie Jones, and Christine Janis -- described the opera camp experience and the benefits of introducing the art form to teenagers as young as 13. He portrayed the workshop as simply a "bunch of local people, all wanting to work together.

"We want it to be about connection to the text and the singing," he said. "The appeal for a lot of the kids is a chance to work with adults they know and they've worked with. They're students of all these professors. So for those kids and the audience, too, I wanted to do something that's not traditional," Senter explained. "You want to tap into their imagination, introduce the kids to something new. Everyone needs to get a shot of something they don't know every now and then and have an experience."

Appropriately, the story of Alice in Wonderland also deals with someone young experiencing new, untraditional things and allowing her imagination to create a whole new world in front of her eyes.

"In some ways, it's like bungee jumping and thinking, 'I guess I'll try that,'" Senter continued. "I've always been tickled when I can walk into a genre and not know everything about it. It's incredibly fascinating."

Senter shared his admiration for Vining, who composed the operetta using several direct quotes from the original texts of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass."

"We have this wonderful composer at our fingertips," Senter remarked, "and I had said I would love to see 'Alice in Wonderland,' and she had written one. Now we've got this very cool piece. It's really an ambitious project."

This is not Vining's first shot at the operatic arts. For the last two years, she has written the story and composed the music for a pair of French-themed operas performed at the Walla Walla Community College, and this week, Vining brings her lyrical and musical experience to this project, which, as Senter shared, isn't all fun and games. Even small town operas come with big challenges.

"Alice in Wonderland is a particularly bizarre story," he said, "and I thought if you put it in Italian, it would be confusing. So I asked her to do it in English instead."

But while the performers might have been thankful for the lyrics being written in a more familiar language, Senter explained that operas have an unusual twist compared to other musical plays.

"In an opera and an operatta everything is sung, and it's different than the American musical in that sense. So one of the things we're focusing on is the connections the performers are making to the text, because it's all sung."

One of the most interesting parts of the production will likely be the unorthodox stage and costume design, inspired less by the original novel and more by the contents of a child's play room. The Mad Hatter wears a dog's cone-shaped space collar, and instead of a full bunny outfit, the White Rabbit sports a "huge afro." A simpler theme is also practical for the week-long preparation period and turns Lewis Carroll's classic monster poem "Jabberwocky" into a more unusual adventure sequence.

The rather strange poem comes from the pages of "Through the Looking Glass," Carroll's sequel to "Alice in Wonderland," and uses invented, nonsensical words such as "borogoves" and "Bandersnatch" in order to create an absence of objective meaning and in turn promote imagination and creativity in the mind of the reader.

"As for 'Jabberwocky,' I don't want to give too much away," Senter said. "We have a dozen black boxes that are arranged in a certain formation, strewn with ribbons, hats, masks, horns, silly string. Anything you can find in a kid's play closet you can find on stage. That's our theme, because that's what kids would do."

Senter encouraged residents to attend the performance and thanked the community for the support it has shown for this, as well as other productions performed in the past.

"It's a great opportunity to see the talent that's right before your eyes," he remarked. "The community in Walla Walla really supports what we do here. The support we have for our plays in our community has been outstanding."

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