On most mornings, the shaded parking area next to Temple’s Cultural Activities Center is serene and quiet, but on Tuesday and Wednesday, the calm gave way to dozens of school buses discharging excited third- through fifth-graders. The children mounted the steps, marched through the lobby and took their assigned seats in the Mayborn Auditorium. For most of these kids, it was their first exposure to opera.
Backstage, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor maestro George Hogan, his assistant (and wife) Penny Hogan, stage manager Sarah Sanderford and the cast are taking their places and seem prepared. This will be one of six performances of “Pinocchio” by John Davies that the troupe, dubbed “Opera Cru,” will present at CAC — then the show goes on the road to Belton High School.
The consummate professionalism of this production was evident from the moment the curtain went up. Hogan,
with easily the most impressive performing/teaching resume in the Central Texas performing arts scene, has molded his young charges into a potent, entertaining ensemble. The simply staged show features a gigantic prop storybook, a few chairs, a hatrack and small-wheeled cart, and nothing else is needed — the acting and singing of the cast kept the youthful audience captivated during the 55-minute opera.
“Pinocchio” is a pastiche, a melange of music from composers from different eras of opera. Offenbach, Mozart, Donizetti and Pergolesi are heard, but with new, English lyrics that tell the tale of Geppetto, his creation-come-to-life Pinocchio and the lesson that we should all “tell the truth.” No lengthy overture and the choice of lighter, perky tunes instead of uber-dramatic arias keep the production bouncing along. The pace of the show and the skill of Hogan’s direction fit the attention span of the kids in the audience, with teachers remarking on the absence of fidgeting during the production.
Belton’s Sean Clark, 19, is cast in the title role and his compact size combined with vocal and acting skills brought the wooden puppet to life. And yes, the nose grows — to the delight of the kids in the audience. But the real scene-stealer was the mechanical doll Olympia, played by Katrina Bernhard, 20, of Round Rock. In an over-the-top, Material Girl-meets-Lady Gaga costume, Bernhard’s eerily machine-like movements and bravura coloratura soprano chops clearly wowed the house.
Performing a piano reduction of the original orchestral accompaniment, Nelda Milligan provided the soaring harmonies, inner voices and counterpoint to the singers. Body microphones were used, a departure from tradition and current performance practice, but the amplified volume level was set low enough that each singer’s timbre could be heard from the stage.
Mary Larson, a fifth-grade teacher at Kennedy-Powell Elementary, was sold on “Pinocchio”: “The kids loved it — they were so into it,” she said.
“My favorite was the doll Olympia,” said Camryn Trussell, 10. “She seemed so real.”
“Kids have that great heart and great spirit,” George Hogan said. “We want to introduce children to this great music early — it’s a collaborative effort between UMHB and the CAC. We started about six years ago and last year this became an annual event.”
With applause and curtain calls over, the children filed out and climbed into the idling school buses. Carolina Gutherie, 10, had the last word. “Who knew opera could be so fun?”