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Opera Theatre of Weston visits The Little School with the Storybook Opera Project

Members of the Opera Theatre of Weston creative team visited a class full of delighted Pre-K children at The Little School in Weston with their school outreach project, Storybook Opera: The Secret Garden.  Choreographer and Educator, Ashley Hensel-Browning, worked with the four year-olds to create human sculptures of plants and trees and inspired them to move as robins, flying and hopping around a garden.  The children listened intently to descriptions of the new opera, The Secret Garden, which is based on the beloved classic novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett and which will receive its East Coast premiere at the Paramount Theatre, Rutland and at the Weston Playhouse January 4 – 11.  Lise Messier, OTW co-producer and artistic director, was joined by OTW stage director Diana Stugger during the workshop to meet the children and answer their questions. 

The Little School of Weston was one of many schools in the southern Vermont area where students of all ages were introduced to the plot, characters, music and stage action of The Secret Garden before attending one of the six specially condensed and narrated school matinees held during the performance week.  Students also learned that five lucky local children will act alongside the professional cast members at each performance: Mary Anderson of Chester will dance the role of the Robin; Evangeline Bulick of Dorset, Morgan Wallace, Kelsey McCullough and Ariel Chase-Parry of Rutland will play the animals that appear in the garden: Squirrel, Fox, Faun and Crow.

The Storybook Opera Project is sponsored in part by Windham Foundation, Vermont Humanities Council, Vermont Country Store, Berkshire Bank Foundation and Trust Company of Vermont. 


Students at Windham Elementary School holding spring bulbs for OTW garden project


Students from the Windham County school system participated in October in a spring bulb planting project organized by OTW and generously funded by Windham Foundation.  The schools taking part were Chester Andover Elementary, Westminster Central and Windham Elementary.  The OTW outreach program included a talk about the new opera The Secret Garden to be performed in Rutland and Weston in January.

In addition to a DVD screening of the San Francisco Opera debut production and a reading from the classic children’s novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the children, mostly between the ages of 5 and 8, were given instruction about how to plant tulip and daffodil bulbs and garlic cloves in their school garden.  Mirroring the characters in the opera, the children discovered the positive benefits of nurturing their environment. They look forward to seeing the rewards of their endeavors in the spring and had many creative ideas for their future garlic crop.  A  total of more than 2,000 southern Vermont schoolchildren will attend six school matinees of The Secret Garden at the Weston Playhouse and at the Paramount Theatre in January.

During November and December, teaching artist and OTW choreographer Ashley Hensel-Browning will tour area schools with Storybook Opera: The Secret Garden Project.  Through music and movement, students will develop an understanding of opera as a form and experience aspects of being in an opera.  They will also explore the symbolic themes of The Secret Garden, including resilience of the human spirit and the healing power of nature.  The Storybook Opera Project is funded by Windham Foundation, Vermont Humanities Council, Vermont Country Store, Berkshire Foundation and Trust Company of Vermont.


On Sunday September 14 at 2 pm, Opera Theatre of Weston (OTW) presented an exciting event for all the family at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester.  Audiences were treated to select musical highlights from The Secret Garden and delicious treats from the era handed out by children in Victorian costume.  Following the talk, children joined in a scavenger hunt and planted a secret garden in the newly landscaped area outside the bookstore. 

After a lauded debut at the San Francisco Opera in March 2013, OTW landed the East Coast premiere of The Secret Garden by Nolan Gasser which is based on the beloved novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.   The official newly revised version of the opera will be performed in January 2015 at the Weston Playhouse and at Rutland’s Paramount Theatre.  The collaborative discussion by OTW stage director Diana Stugger, costume designer Robina D’Arcy-Fox and choreographer/educator Ashley Hensel-Browning drew together the elements involved in the mounting of this exciting new production.  Ms. Hensel-Browning also introduced the Storybook Opera outreach project about to be launched in southern Vermont schools.


The Storybook Opera Project: The Secret Garden is sponsored in part by Windham Foundation, Vermont Humanities Council, Vermont Country Store, Berkshire Bank Foundation and Trust Company of Vermont. 


Students at Dorset Elementary School participating in Storybook Opera


Before mounting Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood) in January 2013, OTW launched Storybook Opera Project. With help from teachers, therapists and OTW staff, approximately 2,700 children from schools throughout Southern Vermont participated in this program. These included communities that were devastated by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011  -- Cavendish, Jamaica, Rochester – whose students shared individual memories of Irene by creating their own narrative arc.

OTW choreographer Ashley Hensel-Browning, a graduate of the Harvard School of Education, helped students transform their experiences into poetry, prose and dance. This integrative approach enhanced their appreciation of Noah’s journey as well as chart their own.

Storybook Opera Project is a collaborative effort to prepare young audiences for the musical performance itself. It features the development and implementation of a comprehensive study guide and educational tour to southern Vermont schools. Students are engaged in pre-performance activities including hearing musical highlights of the opera and comparing its libretto with the original story. Teachers use the opera in the classroom as a learning tool across the curriculum, introducing young people to all aspects of the opera’s time period and culture.  Students can then discover the connections among the opera, their own lives and the larger world.


 Ashley Hensel-Browning directing students at Dorset Elementary School

Parents and Children Appreciate Opera Theatre of Weston!
"Opera Theatre of Weston has one of the most exceptional music programs for students in the country. They introduce thousands of youngsters who live in rural Vermont to opera, and for some of these kids it is a life-changing experience. My son, Everett, who has performed in three of OTW's productions, plans to continue with classical singing and hopes to pursue a career in theatre. It all began with OTW."
                                                                                             John Irving
What Kids say about OTW's "Opera for Kids... with Kids" Programs:
"I might be in the opera when I grow up"

"My favorite part in the opera was the singing because of how clear and beautiful the voices were"

"I can't believe the kids in the opera are as old as we are!"

"Opera goes beyond your true voice!"

"That opera didn't even annoy me... I really liked it!"