By Tom Lady
“We have such a great diversity of speakers,” says Stacy Brightman, VP of LA Opera’s Education and Community Engagement Department (EduCom). “The speakers are this cohort of heroes and heroines from all sorts of different backgrounds who have fallen in love with opera. They show how opera is this great unifier.”
When Stacy says “speakers,” she means the Community Educators, that intrepid band of Opera League volunteers who crisscross the region spreading in-depth operatic knowledge with a level of passion matched only by their erudition.
"When LA Opera started, Peter Hemmings said it was very important to him to reach out to kids," says Carmen Recker, who handles special projects for EduCom and teaches the eight-week speakers class. "But at a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, some of the kids were very boisterous, turning their programs into paper airplanes and throwing them over the balcony. So a bunch of folks got together and said, 'Either we do this better or we stop.' And so what was originally called the Speakers Bureau was born, with the original mission to prep kids to come to the opera."
Carmen was a student in the very first speakers’ class back in the nineties, taught by Stacy Brightman’s predecessor, Llewellyn Crain. When it was over, she told Llewellyn the class would be better served with a more interactive component. An Arizona native, Carmen used to be a performer with Childsplay, a Tempe-based children’s troupe that performs in schools across the Grand Canyon State. As she says: “You don’t get more interactive than children’s theater!”
Llewellyn's response to Carmen’s feedback? Why don’t you teach the speakers class?! Carmen has been teaching it ever since.
So what exactly does a speaker, well, speak about?
“The format of the talks is flexible, but there are benchmarks,” Stacy says. “There has to be a big idea. It can’t be just a story synopsis.”
When I talk to some of the speakers, I try to get a sense of some of their big ideas.
"Priestesses" is the first word I hear when I talk to Mary Johnston about her upcoming talk on The Pearl Fishers. Mary became a Community Educator in 2010 after 34 years as an Occupational Therapist. "My talk will cover Bizet and priestesses in different cultures… .I'll examine Hinduism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka [where The Pearl Fishers is set]. And I'll play clips from movies like Mists of Avalon."
Sean Muhlstein, League treasurer who works by day as a financial advisor, gave a talk last season on Salome that explored the character’s Biblical roots and how those roots connect up to the Oscar Wilde play as well as the opera.
“Mozart Speaks” was the title of Bettyna Bluwal’s talk last season in conjunction with Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. Bettyna, a native of Argentina whose mother was an opera singer, volunteers for the League’s Education team in many capacities. For her Abduction talk, she decided to take a cue from Mozart’s copious correspondence. “I used Mozart’s letters to his father to show how autobiographical the opera is. I concentrated on the lyrics, which Mozart admitted (in his letters) to having practically ‘spoon-fed’ to the librettist.”
Taylor McCallum, an electrical engineer from Texas, is a woman of many "justs": just fell in love with opera a couple years ago in Cincinnati, just arrived in L.A., just joined the Community Educators, and just gave her first, and still only, talk. Her talk on Tosca last season focused on the text. She drew upon her knowledge of Italian to point out various parts of the libretto she felt the audience should keep a sharp ear out for.
What about Carmen Recker’s talk about The Barber of Seville? "I talk about hair," she says. "Everyone's got an opinion about hair....Figaro is a guy who does hair. But in those days, a barber could take care of your toothache, or a kidney stone..."
Then you have Jessica Gonzalez-Rodriguez. A lyric mezzo born and bred in L.A., Jessica has a specialty talk called "How to be an Opera Singer." "I talk about how we train our voices," she says, "the different repertoire that each voice type performs and how the voice can evolve."
Taking in the breadth of topics here, I can’t help but ask the speakers how long it takes them, on average, to prepare a talk. Answers range from forty hours to eighty-five to “who the heck knows?”
“I think the speakers spend more hours than they count or know,” says veteran Opera Leaguer Larry Verdugo, Education volunteer coordinator and consultant. “These talks don’t come easy and can take months to consider, develop and polish….For me to give more than two talks a season can be difficult. I try to give at least seven to ten repetitions of each to justify the time spent.”
A strong through-line in my conversations with the speakers is how they pick an opera they know little or nothing about as a way to force themselves to get smarter about it. Carmen Recker’s research for The Barber of Seville, for example, led her to brush up on dentistry. "I am now L.A.'s foremost authority on the history of barbering and dentistry," she cracks.
The Community Educators deliver their talks in a wide variety of venues, within and beyond Los Angeles County. Stacy and her team tell me that the 2016-17 season saw no less than 210 opera talks delivered.
“The Community Educators program is a very Los Angeles story,” Stacy says. “It reflects our city and our county in a very poetic way. A beautiful, poetic metaphor of the city itself.”
LAO's Carmen Recker with Opera League Education veteran Larry Verdugo
Cover photo: A graduating class of Community Educators: (left to right) Rachel Staples Guettler, Sean Muhlstein, Brandon Wise, Jessica Gonzalez-Rodriguez, Ray Busmann, Elizabeth Burke, David Yaroslavsky, Tanya Len
All photos by Jennifer Babcock of LA Opera.