Dean Burry holds up the fist-sized air sac. His audience is too young to know how it works, so he demonstrates.
“The classic way to use it is to put it down on someone’s seat,” he said. Then, as Burry sits down on the air sac (whoopee cushion), the sound of passing gas makes the children laugh. “See, it’s funny.”
The children crowd around him eager to play with this classic theatrical prop. Burry, a composer and librettist, is the teacher and co-ordinator of the Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) After School Opera Program. Offered at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, it encourages children and young adults to get involved in the arts.
For $15 a semester, the seven to 12 year-olds meet weekly for 10 weeks and then perform an opera. “It’s not a classroom where we teach about opera, it’s a theatre space where we do opera and that’s where the education comes from,” Burry said.
Each semester, in consultation with the students, Burry writes a new opera with a different theme. This time, it’s a clown opera, so comedy is important. “It’s meant to be fun, but also reflective of what their lives are and never ever talking down to them,” he said. “It’s about working with them on their level and the broadness of what that is.” Since creating the program around 1998, Burry has learned what works in the classroom.
Chloë Chalmers, 11, likes the program so much she returns every year.“I’ve been here the longest,” she said. “I started when I was eight … and I had never done any COC stuff before but I really liked it … and wanted to stay.”
Burry provides a nourishing atmosphere in which his students flourish. While he focuses on the basics of opera, music, drama and design, he also teaches other skills. “Confidence and the ability to tap into their creativity are two incredibly important life skills that are going to serve them whatever they do,” he said. “I want them to appreciate the value of having the arts in their lives.”
John Terauds, a music critic at the Toronto Star and website musicaltoronto.org, understands why the arts are important, especially for young people. “The reasons why these programs exist are to ensure that (children are) exposed to the arts,” Terauds said. “Opera is … such a multi-disciplinary field because it involves movement, it involves music and it involves theatre.”
Opera performers need all these skills, so the students are exposed to all the jobs on and off the stage. Chloe Robillard, 9, already has a career in mind. “I might want to work with the COC in the future, but I would like to be in the art department making props for opera,” she said.
The children learn everything from prop-making to proper on-stage breathing technique – the practical aspects of opera. But the students also connect to the program on another level; they feel special. Kevon Neiven, 11, a pupil attending his second semester, likes this feeling the most.“I like how it’s people’s time to shine because they really want a chance to act on stage,” he said.
Burry recognizes this reaction and works to get the best from his students. “It’s collaboration with the most exuberant, exciting people you could ever possibly find,” he said. “You’ll never get more open creativity than you will from these young people.”
When the 10 weeks were up, Burry’s opera kids performed the clown play. Their parents laughed at the whoopee cushion gag too.