Boston-area teens come together to create, expand horizons at the Opera Factory

Sandra Larson | 8/13/2009, 8:24 a.m.
Members of the 2009 Opera Factory design team pose in front of costume design sketches in their workshop....
Now in its second summer, the Opera Factory brings talented Boston-area public school students together to produce an opera. The teens are responsible for everything from learning to sing complicated classical pieces to constructing and painting scenery. Sandra Larson

Meanwhile, in the same five-week period, nine other teens were honing design skills with Gronk, a Los Angeles-based scenic designer from Brazil, and Rachel Padula-Shufelt, a Boston costume designer.

Before last weekend’s three performances, the design team’s workshops were open for visitors to tour.

In the costume area, Quela Jules, 16, a Boston Arts Academy student from Dorchester, fit a wig carefully on a female singer.

Worktables around her were jammed with sewing machines, fabric bins and wig mannequins. Costume sketches lined the walls.

Jules handled her combs, brushes and pins like a seasoned professional, unflustered by visitors, cameras and questions.

A nearby easel held the period wig designs used in the team’s early research.

 “We started out looking at [the styles of] Mozart’s time,” explained Padula-Shufelt, “and then worked on modernizing them.”

It was the crew’s idea to use fabric paint on thrift-store skirts, she said, transforming them from white to neon shades of pink and yellow. For the scene where male singers pretend to be distinguished visitors from afar, the crew used patterns to sew fancy robes in a patchwork of colors.

“We went on field trips to thrift stores,” said Glorisel Regalis, an 18-year-old from Brighton. Regalis graduated this spring from Boston’s MATCH Charter Public High School and will enter Wheaton College in September.

She did some acting in middle school, but never any design work. She now has a greater appreciation for the work the crew does, she said.

“When you’re on stage, you don’t know what it takes to do the backstage work,” she said.

Lisa Barone, a 17-year-old Methuen High School senior, was one of the female leads in the opera. She said she had studied operatic singing but had not acted before.

“I had to go beyond my comfort zone,” said Barone, whose role as the maid Despina had her commanding the stage alone at times.

“Alexandra made it clear we were going to be actors, not just singers,” said Barone. Working with the highly experienced Borrie, she said, gave the singers “a celebrity’s point of view” on their skills.

Alison Kotin, the Cloud Foundation’s outreach coordinator, said high-quality instruction is a key part of the foundation’s mission.

“We go out of our way to find instructors who can give a great model of what it’s like to be a professional artist,” she said. “A lot of kids don’t get a ton of support from their families when they want to pursue art, and it’s important to see other models and mentors.”

Kotin emphasized the high level of commitment demanded of the students, who sign contracts before starting the program. The foundation pays a stipend to the teens so that they don’t need to feel financial hardship taking part in a program that takes up so much time during the summer, she said, and provides T passes when needed.

After last Saturday night’s performance, exhilarated crew members and performers answered questions from the audience and then mingled around a table of refreshments.

Several of Christiana McMullen’s relatives chatted with pride about her accomplishment. For her part, McMullen still sounded a little surprised.

“I was so focused on doing jazz for the rest of my life,” she said. “I just wanted to do something different.” She said the opera training both improved her singing voice and opened her eyes to classical music possibilities.

Penny Knight, the Brockton High School choral director who has taught Demeyer Lauture and Mark Joseph, came to see the performance. She recalled Joseph as a freshman, reluctant to even sing a solo.

On this night, she was not only proud of her charges, but also truly impressed by the caliber of the performance.

“I got chills,” she said.