By Steven J. Smith
About 100 children in the area will come together November 16 and 17 to celebrate the Sarasota Youth Opera Program’s 30th anniversary by presenting the opera version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic story The Hobbit.
Sung in English with English supertitles, the opera features more than 26 solo roles for young people with a chorus of 70, consisting of kids ranging in age from eight to 18, according to Ben Plocher, manager of educational activities for the Sarasota Opera.
“There’s no prior experience necessary to participate in the program,” Plocher said. “The really unique thing about it is regardless of talent or socioeconomics, everyone is welcome in our program. Each year we do an opera that, with the exception of maybe one to four adults, the rest of the cast is youth. It’s a very unique program in the U.S., in that we do a full scale production — with a full orchestra, direction, sets, costumes, and lighting done by professionals — every year with kids.”
Plocher added that the program was launched to give young people the opportunity to learn about opera in a hands-on fashion. Instead of simply viewing the opera as an audience, they become actual participants. The program costs between $150 and $175 per semester and more than 30 percent of families apply for and receive tuition assistance.
“By participating, the kids learn more about the art form than if they were just passive viewers,” he said, adding about 14 members of the cast of The Hobbit will also appear in Sarasota Opera’s fall production of Pagliacci.
“So there are kids everywhere at Sarasota Opera this fall,” he laughed, “and their participation in mainstage productions is another facet of the program. It gives them direct access to professional opera singers, and lets them see how the pros work and how to have a career in opera.”
The Sarasota Youth Opera last performed The Hobbit back in 2008. It was the U.S. premiere of the opera, which was originally commissioned by the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus in 2004. Adapted by composer/librettist Dean Burry, it is the first opera based on a work by Tolkien about a comfort-loving hobbit who is unwillingly dragged into a quest to steal a dragon’s gold.
“It was a huge success in 2008,” Plocher said. “The kids enjoyed it thoroughly and ever since then, they’ve been asking when we were going to do it again. So we felt it would be very fitting to do it in celebration of our 30th anniversary.”
Martha Collins, who has directed about a dozen operas at Sarasota Opera, directs The Hobbit. Plocher said Collins has also served as director for the Youth Opera production since 2005.
“Martha has a long history with us, and she brings so much to every production,” he said. “Our Youth Opera music director Maestro Jesse Martins works for multiple months teaching the music to the kids and getting them into that artistic framework. Then Martha comes in and brings that world alive even further by putting them into the environment of the opera and teaches them how to make the story come alive for the audience on another level.”
Performances of The Hobbit will take place at 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 15, and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 16, at the Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave. in Sarasota. Tickets are available through the box office (941-328-1300) and online at www.sarasotaopera.org.