This summer, aspiring entertainers will have the opportunity to attend a camp quite unlike anything else being offered in Ventura County. Ojai Youth Opera Summer Camp kicked off its second season on Aug. 5, and for two weeks attendees will be immersed in the world of Verdi, Puccini and Rossini with an intensive curriculum that includes the bel canto singing technique, musicianship, acting and stage combat. For kids enrolled in the program (who range in age from 7 to 18 years) it should be an unforgettable and enriching experience.
“It’s so exciting to think that we can turn them on to an art form that they may not have access to,” says artistic director Rebecca Comerford. “We want to make opera fun and exciting and interesting for them.”
Ojai Youth Opera sprang from the joint efforts of Comerford and Julija Zonic, two classically trained musicians and performers who met through mutual friends during the 2012 Ojai Music Festival. Comerford is a mezzo-soprano who lived in New York City and toured throughout the U.S. and Europe before coming to Ojai in 2011. Croatian-born Zonic was a member of Little Stars Girls Choir (often described as a female Vienna Boys Choir) and has a repertoire that includes jazz, pop and rock opera as well as classical opera; she came to the U.S. in 1999 and Ojai in 2006. Both women had been teaching in the area and really wanted to establish a resident children’s opera. “We both feel a compulsion to share what we know and pass on a torch,” Comerford explains.
Their first season was something of an experiment. They found funding through the Rotary Club, a rehearsal space at Ojai Youth Entertainers Studio, scholarship sponsorship from a variety of local businesses and 15 students to enroll. “We just wanted to plant a seed and see if it would sprout,” Zonic recalls. “It all materialized very quickly.”
The sprout has grown: enrollment is up 33 percent, with 20 students this year (Ojai Art Center is the new venue). The impressive faculty includes renowned dramatic contralto Nicole Mitchell, piano accompanist Jen Radisch and Ojai’s own Smitty West (who records and performs with Zonic). There will also be set and costume designers and even a sword fighting coach. Students will participate in group lessons, but nearly one third of their time will be in focused one-on-one sessions — almost unheard of for youth music programs. This year’s repertoire is devoted entirely to operas in Italian, so language lessons will also be incorporated. The program concludes with a student performance (open to the public) on Sunday, Aug. 18.
The camp is open to children with or without singing experience, and knowledge of opera is not required. Bel canto voice training might be associated with opera and chamber music, but its emphasis on “true voice” and vocal cord health is valuable for singers of any genre. Putting on a production, working as a team and performing in front of an audience impart lessons that last long past the finale. “We’re empowering young artists and equipping them with the tools they need for life,” says Zonic.
Opera camp is in its second year, but 2013 is the first for Ojai Youth Opera as a company: Comerford and Zonic are working towards establishing nonprofit status, and hope the company will grow into a permanent cultural institution on par with Tanglewood Music Center. The founders think opera is overlooked on the West Coast, and that’s something they intend to change.
“Opera in particular is a universal art form,” says Comerford. “You can go to an opera in Austria and see the same one in Tokyo or San Francisco or Zagreb. That’s a really beautiful part of the tradition.”
For more information, search Ojai Youth Opera on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.