A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend two mornings with Trust grantee, Portland Opera to Go (POGO). Here’s what I found:

Peals of laughter ripple through Davis Elementary School’s gymnasium as two bed sheet-clad “ghosts” appear from behind a partition.

But the students, aged five through 10, fall silent when the ghosts begin singing an opera duet. Portland Opera to Go, or POGO, a mobile group of Portland Opera cast and crew members, travel several thousand miles each year, performing in schools, community centers and local theaters, but mostly in schools.

Between January and March, the company did nearly 60 performances in over 20 communities around Oregon, Southwest Washington and Northern California. An Oregon Cultural Trust grant of $21,000 helped them realize an ambitious touring agenda. (The Trust also granted POGO for its spring 2013 season, The Magic Flute.)

The singers and crew staged two productions this year – Puccini’s La Boheme, shortened to 50 minutes for middle and high school audiences, and an interactive “Opera Improv” for elementary school students. Each opera has an accompanying curriculum guide. Alexis Hamilton, Portland Opera’s Education & Outreach Coordinator, and Samuel Hawkins, the POGO tour manager, treat the program like a finely tuned instrument. The group runs lean, with six cast members, one pianist, and the manager. Sets are light and easy to carry. Costumes are donned in auditorium or gymnasium corners.

POGO performers aren’t the singers one sees at Postcard From Morocco. “The POGO artists are teaching artists,” said Hamilton. “They are younger, often emerging artists who are drawn to this type of work.” The troupe tries for racial and ethnic diversity, and the 2014 cast includes Latina Soprano Andrea Flores; African-American Bass Kevin Bertin, and practicing Jewish Tenor Yoni Rose. Last year, Tamino, the romantic lead in The Magic Flute, was played by a person of color, Anthony Ballard. According to Hamilton, “the Black children were stunned.” Another aha moment occurred for Hamilton when she saw a Latina singer chatting with a Latina student in Spanish. “The children connect around singers who look (and talk) like them.”

Each POGO show involves learning. After La Boheme, Flores answered a question from a Jackson Middle School boy: Is it hard to sing in costume? She described the challenges of projecting her voice and hearing her colleagues while wearing a mask and wig, or a very tight dress. “But I’ve lost some weight on this trip, so it’s more comfortable now.” Veteran cast member Stacey Murdock answered another boy’s question: Do you really cry during the intense scenes? “It’s hard to cry and sing at the same time,” Murdock said, “because your throat closes up when you cry. We’re acting.” At the end of the Q&A time, several hands were still raised.

Before Opera Improv at Davis Elementary School, the cast explained and demonstrated arias, duets and ensembles, and the difference between a Baritone and a Tenor, a Soprano and a Lyric Soprano. The kids then chose the type of story they preferred (the Davis kids chose “scary,” hence the ghosts), which pieces of music they liked, and a happy or tragic ending (Davis chose happy.). Then the opera began.

Cast members Bertin, Flores, Rose and Soprano Ainsley Soutiere were visitors to Oregon from New York City, Phoenix, Washington DC and Calgary, respectively. Over the three months, the troupe spent time in Portland, Beaverton, Hillsboro and Salem, as well as in Klamath Falls, Merrill, Scio, Turner and Halfway. Though Rose said both rural and urban students enjoyed the shows, “their faces light up more in the rural areas.”

According to Bertin, socio-economic status also played little role in the children’s enjoyment of opera. “All kids like to pretend,” said Bertin, “rich or poor.”

Murdock, whose wife Melinda teaches choir at Jackson Middle School, notes that, with arts education funding so volatile, the work of nonprofits like POGO are ever more critical to helping children find music and the performing arts. And he laughs at the supposition that adolescents are unimpressed by the shows “The little kids really get into it, giggling, or awed. Middle school kids may look bored, but don’t let the preteen body language fool you. Sometimes the ones who look bored are the ones who come up to us afterward and say, ‘that was really cool.’”

-Meryl Lipman, Trust Communications Manager