By Kelly Burch
---- — When you think opera, do you picture overzealous sopranos, Viking wigs and foreign languages?
One local organization is aiming to change that common notion by making opera fun and accessible to kids.
The Treble Chorus of New England’s Hands on Opera! is a show staged specifically for educational outreach. This year’s production, “The Pirates of Penzance,” debuts tonight at West Middle School in Andover, with a second performance tomorrow afternoon.
The Treble Chorus opera program allows young people who are 10 to 18 years old to get involved with all aspects of a production, from the starring role to making the set.
“The kids do everything,” said Bernadette Lionetta, president of the board of TCNE. “We call it ‘hands on’ because even the kids who aren’t into being in the limelight can be involved. They get the whole experience of what it takes to make a production.”
Some of the stars of the show were at first intimidated by being in an opera, something that Lionetta and director Rebecca Farnham said is a common reaction to the art form.
“People are absolutely intimidated by opera,” Farnham said. “They’re amazed by it because it’s an awesome and specialized craft, but the truth is a lot more people could participate in this than think they can.”
Francesca Lionetta, Bernadette’s daughter, said she was hesitant to take a role.
“When they first asked me to be in the opera, I said, ‘No thank you.’ Then I tried it, and I fell in love,” Francesca said. “I love that I get to work with people to make beautiful music together.”
Francesca is playing the lead role of Mabel in “The Pirates of Penzance,” a play that she said appeals to kids.
“There is all this commotion and all this drama,” Francesa said. “It’s just hilarious.”
Farnham agreed that “The Pirates of Penzance,” an operetta, is a perfect production to introduce kids to opera — both in the audience and onstage.
“It’s an opera, but a little closer to the music theater in that it has dialogue,” she said. “True operas don’t have any dialogue, but that makes this show more fun for kids.”
At just 22 years old, Farnham is a music theory instructor for the company. She teaches private lessons and does music therapy, along with community theater throughout the area.
“I’m passionate about making opera relatable,” she said. “It’s my art, what I live for, and I don’t want to see it extinct, like people keep insisting opera is.”
She said that exposing kids to opera is crucial to preserving the art. That’s part of the reason why Farnham is reveling in her role as director of the Hands on Opera! production.
“I love that when I give the kids a goal, they strive for it,” she said. “I give them a challenge and they meet it, then surpass it. It’s amazing. And that is besides their musical talents.”
Seeing her students marry singing and acting has been particularly rewarding.
“They not only have to sing with excellence but must act with excellence, as well,” she said. “That has been remarkable. It’s authentic and genuine and has made for a really great performance.”
“It’s been an amazing experience. I get to work one-on-one to improve as an actress,” she said. “Plus, I get to shine, which is always fun.”
If You Go
What: The Treble Chorus of New England presents “Pirates of Penzance”
When: Today at 7 p.m. and tomorrow at 2 p.m.
Where: West Middle School, 70 Shawsheen Road, Andover
How much: $16 general admission, $10 for students and seniors. Tickets available at the door.