Portland Opera to Go, Oregon Cultural Trust bring culture, curriculum to more schools

Peter Bilotta recalls that when budget cuts first threatened arts education in Oregon schools, many teachers turned to Portland Opera.

“We had teachers coming to us, saying, ‘We don’t have funding for arts programming anymore. What can you do to help us?’ That’s when we created Portland Opera to Go,” says Bilotta, director of development for Portland Opera. “We send the opera out on the road with a group of professional singers and scenery and costumes, so that throughout the entire state of Oregon, we’re able to provide productions.”

Portland Opera to Go is now the largest arts education tour of its kind in the Northwest, performing each year in 60 to 80 communities throughout Oregon, primarily at schools, with a cast of four to seven singers, an accompanying pianist, a stage manager, full costumes and scenery. Operas are adapted so that they are about 50 minutes in length.

If the program sounds familiar to western Washington County residents, it's because it came to Forest Grove's Grand Lodge in January as part of a tour of McMenamins locations around the state.

“We take the highlights of the show and the highlights of the music, the more tuneful parts,” Bilotta said, “and we try to really trim it down to the essential parts of the story so that kids from kindergarten through sixth grade can really understand, and it’s a bit more entertaining.”

And the libretto is always in English.

“It’s a lot like seeing a real opera and going to the opera house,” Bilotta says. “We try to make it a very professional performance.”

Past productions have included Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel,” Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love” and Puccini’s “La bohème,” which was aimed at middle and high school students.

This year, Portland Opera to Go will stage Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” a lighter selection widely regarded as an ideal introduction to the genre. Although Mozart wrote it partly as political satire, the story involves fairy tale elements, enchantment and engaging music. Unlike more conventional operas, which rarely use spoken dialogue, “The Magic Flute” features occasional conversation between characters.

When deciding on where to perform, Portland Opera to Go gives preference to schools with an under-served population, in communities where there is little or no art programming. Two differently sized sets enable the POG cast and crew to adapt their shows to smaller venues.

But it’s not all about the show: At each school, POG offers not only performance but also classroom workshops led by singers and theater artists. The workshops are designed around Oregon arts curriculum, and beforehand, teachers are offered lesson plans that can be used to relate the performance to science, literature, math, social studies or writing.

One of the lesson plans, for example, demonstrates how music notes are divided into halves, quarters and eighths. As they learn a little about composition, students also look at fractions from a new angle.

“Pretty soon that connection is made because the kid is able to relate fractions to a real thing. It makes a real difference,” Bilotta said.

But how do students — many of whom have never been exposed to opera — respond to a full day of it?

“Generally the reaction we get from both teachers and students is pretty overwhelming,” Bilotta says. “Every year we do evaluations with teachers and students. Typically we hear from 90 percent of teachers and students that they enjoyed it. Most everyone wants us to come back.”

But again, fine arts education doesn’t come cheap. The cost of a yearly 10-week POG program runs about $200,000. Securing full funding is a struggle, one made worse by the recent recession.

This year, the Oregon Cultural Trust awarded a $16,000 grant to the program — funding that Bilotta says will allow the POG cast and crew to stay on the road for two to three weeks longer than expected, and to appear at 15 more schools.

The Cultural Trust is giving more than $1.5 million to cultural arts organizations throughout the state for the coming fiscal year. In total, more than $298,500 in grant money was dispersed to nonprofits in the Portland metro area.

As for Bilotta, after 17 years, he’s seeing the investment pay off.

“We have one of the youngest opera audiences in the nation at Portland Opera. Part of that is we’re starting to see young adults and young professionals whose first experience was through this program, 10 or 15 years ago.”

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