Sing for your arts

Chico State music and theater program collaborates with local schools to resurrect opera

Chico State Music and Theatre Department Chair Bradley Martin accompanies students during early rehearsals for the opera The Little Sweep.

Chico State Music and Theatre Department Chair Bradley Martin accompanies students during early rehearsals for the opera The Little Sweep.

Photo by Gerardo Olmos

In an era when the arts have been slashed due to perpetual state and local budget cuts, Bradley Martin, chair of the Music and Theatre Department at Chico State, is determined to resurrect a once proud program lost in 2011. The Australia native wants opera back at the university, and to that end, he plans to capture the enthusiasm of youth with a collaboration between his department and Chico’s elementary and high school students.

Martin hopes that The Little Sweep, a sing-along opera penned in 1949 by Benjamin Britten, will be the perfect flint to spark interest in 1,500 Chico Unified School District students, and buoy his efforts to re-establish the opera program.

The Little Sweep project, launched this semester, has paired Chico State music and theater majors with area elementary and high school students, who are already rehearsing for the play. And for the next six weeks, the Chico State students and elementary music teachers will teach the opera’s four sing-along numbers to fourth- and fifth-graders. The culmination will be six performances, Jan. 18 and 19, at the university’s Harlen Adams Theatre, where the vocally groomed elementary singers will serve as the traditional opera chorus in the audience while the mix of elementary, high school and college students perform on stage. All Chico elementary students are invited to the performances, and the audiences will be limited to students.

“The best thing about this opera is that the local children will get to participate, play a central role in the performance,” Martin said.

Brandon Burchard, a freshman musical theater major from Hollister, plays the role of Johnny, a 15-year-old who finds the little sweep in the chimney and decides to keep him as a new house guest. Burchard has been working with five other Chico State students, visiting eight elementary schools to tell the opera’s story in advance of the kids learning the songs.

“This is a great project to get kids involved in the arts and to get the opera program back at CSUC,” Burchard said. “It’s cool to include students at elementary schools so they can have exposure to the arts.”

Sarah Krulder, a sophomore at Inspire School of Arts & Sciences, will play one of the leads, Juliet, in The Little Sweep. She also studies opera vocals privately with Gwen Curatilo, the retired one-time director of Chico State’s defunct Opera Workshop.

“I’m excited to make new relationships and work on a more contemporary piece of music,” Krulder said. “I find the more I rehearse this, the more beauty I find in it, and I’m excited to share it with the kids. I’m glad we’re bringing it out.”

Martin’s goal is to promote the arts and bring young artists into opera—a strange art form for some of them—by offering an interactive experience.

“I hope this will lead them to discover an interest in opera, performance, music, dance and theater, fostering a new generation of talent and appreciation for the arts,” he said. “We need to build a stronger music and voice department to support that.”

The ultimate goal is to create a breadth of involvement and interest in order to encourage funding to reinvigorate the programs.

“Most music departments have dance, opera and orchestra,” Martin explained, stressing the importance of rounding out Chico State’s program with opera. “That’s what’s being offered at most colleges. We need to have a competitive degree for prospective students.”