By Tom Lady
The expression on my face must be of someone lost. For the first time ever, I’m heading into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for a reason other than just taking in an opera.
I’m volunteering at my first LA Opera Education event.
Never fear! Not one, but two veteran Opera League volunteers swoop to my rescue, armed with smiles and knowledge and colorful sign posts.
"Here's how it works," says Priscilla Yam. "This is an Operawise event. We're going to get a bunch of colleges here tonight, and we have to organize them and get them signed in. We’ll organize them here." She gestures at the floor space separating the glass doors from the grand staircase.
"Take this!" Bettyna Bluwal thrusts a wooden post into my hand that has a red sign at the top that reads "Pierce College Italian." “Hold that up so the kids from Pierce know to line up here.”
I look around and see other volunteers bearing wooden posts with signs of various colors labeled with school names such as Master’s College and Santa Monica College.
“We’re getting seven schools tonight,” Bettyna informs me. She confirms with Priscilla. “And what? A hundred fifty students or so? They’ll be watching Butterfly technical rehearsals.”
Just like that, I’ve struck up two friendships and learned a thing or two about Operawise logistics. Better yet, I no longer feel like an extraterrestrial visitor. I’m starting to get excited about this.
This is no accident. Opera League Education volunteers are renowned for their welcoming spirit, bottomless passion and knowledge, not to speak of being the proverbial grease.
Opera League Education Chair Larry Verdugo sums up a volunteer's job this way: "In a word: smile. Smile at them. Welcome them…We want to teach them about opera, promote opera, nurture future audiences."
The volume increases commensurate with the influx of young folks, many glued to their smartphones, not heeding the instructions of the volunteers.
Folks like Bettyna are unfazed. She banters in Italian with the kids from Pierce (Italian is a common second language in Bettyna’s native Argentina). Suddenly the kids have forgotten all about Candy Crush.
"The arts are so neglected in our school systems," Bettyna says. "Without art, life has no meaning. My life wouldn't be the same if music wasn't in it."
"I love classical music,” says Priscilla. “And I want other people to love it too. In order for opera to have a future, the younger generation must be introduced to this art form, so they can appreciate it."
LA Opera offers quite the menu of Education programs for which Larry and his Opera League Education team provide an army of volunteers. The programs include Operawise (for college students), Saturday Morning at the Opera (for elementary school kids), Opera Prep (high school students) and elementary student matinees during the week.
As for Opera Camp, offered every summer, the Opera League not only lends volunteer power, but thanks to our annual Hemmings gala, we help underwrite it as well.
For the adult crowd, Opera for Educators sees teachers attend interactive lectures by music professionals and then learn how to integrate their newfound knowledge into their curricula.
What Opera League volunteers are expected to do and how many are needed depends on the event. Saturday Morning at the Opera and Opera Camp each need at least ten volunteers willing to get an early jump on the day. Duties include usher, chaperone, greeter, ticket taker, and safety warden. Opera for Educators? Two or three. Operawise aims for at least five volunteers, or at least as many volunteers as there are schools represented.
Specific duties notwithstanding, and as I learned firsthand at the Butterfly Operawise, volunteers are generally expected to help organize the masses of bright young minds.
“And my job in a nutshell is to liaise between LA Opera’s EduCom team [Education and Community Engagement], the schools and the League volunteers,” Larry says.
Larry of course is a passionate volunteer himself. When LA Opera hosted a weekday matinee for The Magic Flute that saw literally thousands of kids show up, Larry and team were all hands on deck. “We were supposed to get thirty volunteers but could only get twenty,” he says. Volunteers grouped the kids by school while others greeted them as they got off the buses.
Oh yes, the buses are yet another invaluable contribution from the Opera League. "We have never turned down a request to provide buses that bring students to the opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion," Larry says.
“The Opera League provides critical funding for buses so that schools in underserved Los Angeles communities have an opportunity to come to the Dorothy Chandler and experience opera,” says Nathan Rifenburg, Education Manager on LAO’s EduCom team. “Once here, League volunteers welcome students with smiles and information.”
Stacy Brightman, Senior Director of LAO EduCom, gushes: “I appreciate the passion, grace and service ethic of our many Opera League volunteers. They understand that they are the face of our company… The work is never glamorous, but I hope they feel the glory of it along with my deepest gratitude.”
The pleasure, to turn a phrase, is all the volunteer’s.
“I enjoy sharing my life of opera with young people,” says Lenore Rodah, volunteer extraordinaire who also lends a hand at the Shop at the Opera and is one of our light walkers. “And encouraging them to develop a place for opera in their musical life.”