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New children’s opera tests its wings at workshop

A dozen singers compromise the cast of Bennu's Birds.

Opera to Go’s Amalga Chamber Orchestra this weekend performs the aria of a new children’s opera that recently debuted in a workshop setting.

Bennu’s Birds — written by Rory Stitt — won’t premiere until spring, but a Juneau audience got a peek at the opera in October and offered comments for the final production.

Bennu’s Birds is about a boy named Bennu, who lives in a village where singing is essential, but his singing sounds like nonsense. He strives to be accepted.

A dozen singers dressed in black stand in two rows at the front of the sanctuary at Northern Light United Church. Next spring, they will don costumes and stride around a stage and battle. But on this October Sunday afternoon, they’re static in front of an audience armed with comment forms and plot cheat sheets.

The performance workshop is not new to Juneau audiences. More than a decade ago, King Island Christmas went through the workshop process at Perseverance Theatre. Opera to Go Artistic Director William Todd Hunt says workshops are common nowadays with new artistic pieces.

“So that when you go into your final version you don’t spend all that time on something that might not make as much sense as it could,” Hunt says.

Former Juneau artist Rory Stitt wrote the music and words to the opera. He now lives in Portland but continues to work on various musical projects in Juneau.

Hunt and Stitt have been working on the opera for years.

“In this very room, in Northern Light Church, I met Rory, probably four years ago who was working on his requiem. I’d kind of known him as a rock and roll player and what not and an actor, but seeing this other side of his music, and meeting him, made me think ‘Wow, this guy needs to write a children’s opera,’” Hunt says.

“He mentioned to me about the idea of creating a children’s opera and that he would commission me for it if I was game for that,” Stitt says.

“Where did I get the idea? I don’t know, I read a lot of children’s books, to get myself sort of into that mindset. Growing into your own identity was something I struggled with a lot. My tactic was, if it was relatable to me, for my childhood experience, that was probably the closest I could get to creating something that might be meaningful for kids,” Stitt says.

“A lot of composers for children’s operas tend to write down to make it really sing-songy for the kids but he doesn’t do that and I really respect that,” Hunt says.

While the script is three years in the making, Stitt started working on the music two months ago. The singers only had a couple of weeks to learn the piece before the workshop.

21-year-old Jonas Decena, who plays Bennu, only had time to learn the most important songs, such as the final scene. Hunt played the rest of Bennu’s parts on a saxophone.

Opera to Go Artistic Director William Todd Hunt plays the saxophone to represent what Bennu sounds like.

Hunt doesn’t know quite what Bennu will sound like in the final opera.

“It’ll be jibberish, probably, that’s another thing that’s up for possible revision is ‘what does Bennu actually sound like,” Hunt says.

Two weeks wasn’t enough time to turn it into an orchestral piece, or even hand it over to a piano player. Instead he used a computer program that creates and plays back music.

“When I first started using this particular program, Finale, in ’92, it was awful. It was pretty much hard to listen to, very stilted sounding. But they’ve gotten it to where it was fairly natural sounding,” Stitt says.

Decena moved to rural West Virginia when he was 10. There, his parents enrolled him in college-level vocal lessons as a birthday gift. He says he practiced at least five hours a day for Bennu’s Birds.

“I really want to add this to my portfolio because in April I’m moving to New York and I’m going to be doing auditions,” Decena says.

Decena says he can empathize with Bennu.

“When I came to this country I didn’t really speak English. I came here when I was 7 from Venezuela and, yep, learned from scratch,” Decena says.

Juneau soprano Rebekah Grimes is The Bird in Bennu’s Birds. 5-year-old Ava Grimes came with her dad and brother to watch her mom sing.

“I really liked it. I liked the music,” Grimes says.

Throughout the rough-cut performance, the audience filled out the comment forms, explaining what they liked or what they didn’t understand. Heather Bennett came to the opera with Alicia Hughes. Bennett found out about the workshop from Facebook.

“The voices sound great, and I love the music that goes with some of the harmonies but there were some areas where it sounded like the background music, essentially was doing something very different, so different that it was distracting from the scene rather than adding to it,” Bennett says.

Opera to Go Artistic Director William Todd Hunt asks the audience for honest feedback to gauge what needs to be changed in the workshop.

Hughes says some scenes needed clarification, but she calls the story “fantastic” and relatable.

“I just thought some of the music was really haunting, I’m sure I’ll have some of these stuck in my head already,” Hughes says.

Stitt will use the audience input from the workshop to decide what direction the opera will take. Once revisions are made, Stitt and Hunt will do the orchestration and hash out production staging and costumes.

The Amalga Chamber Orchestra will feature a selection from Bennu’s Birds at a concert at Northern Light United Church on November 17 and 18. The full opera will debut next spring.

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