Having an opera singer for a choirmaster is pretty cool, especially when you get gigs like Carmen.
Bizet’s famous opera is hardly a kids tale, but it does have a children’s chorus, and the Canberra Children’s Choir will join the cast of Opera Australia on the Canberra Theatre stage on 9 and 10 July for its touring production.
Choir director Tobias Cole has been there himself as a young singer, on his way to a career with Opera Australia as a countertenor, so he knows exactly what his charges can expect when they don costumes and step on the stage to get the conductor’s nod.
“It’s very exciting to have the chance to prepare for this, but also knowing what an experience it is having been there myself when I was a child,” Tobias says.
“It’s wonderful to then share that with 20 kids from the Children’s Choir.”
Opera Australia has been touring the country with Carmen, recruiting local choirs wherever it may be performing.
When Canberra’s turn came, it looked no further than Tobias, who has been involved with choirs in Canberra for many years, with Canberra Youth Music, now known as Music For Canberra, and at the ANU School of Music.
Music For Canberra CEO Helen Roben says the opportunity came with Opera Australia knowing Tobias’s role with the organisation and that the choir, ranging in ages from eight to 14, would be of a high enough standard required for a full stage production.
“It was met with absolute excitement both for Tobias and the kids in the choir,” she says.
Tobias says the choir has been rehearsing the chorus “quite intensively” for about a month. While the music is memorable, the extra degree of difficulty is that it is sung in French.
“I have to know the music backwards so I can demonstrate the pronunciations,” says Tobias who, ever the entertainer, becomes a French character to help the children grasp the nasal vowels and the particular Gallic articulation with an emphasis on just about every syllable.
The trick is not to actually say it’s hard, he says.
It’s a case of constant refinement, at getting better – something he finds children appreciate.
Opera Australia has helped out with recordings to work with and to listen to at home.
It will also provide the costumes, and the children will have the fun and thrill of being fitted out at the theatre for their time on stage.
“This experience will resonate for the rest of their lives,” Tobias says. “You are so immersed in the project you go to another world. They’ll really feel that and love it.”
For him, once they are on stage, there is nothing that he can do.
“Having to let go is a very important part of that process. My work is done and I have to give them over to the conductor,” Tobias says.
The children will perform for about three minutes at the beginning and a bit longer at the end. In between, his job is to keep them calm and relaxed backstage.
Abi, 11, has been singing with Tobias since she was seven and loves performing around Canberra.
“The thing I love the most is getting to meet people from around the world and perform at places like the Smiths Bookshop, Llewellyn Hall and the Portrait Gallery,” she says.
For eight-year-old Eva, the best part about singing with Tobias is learning how to sing songs in different languages.
“It’s hard at first because it is so different, but he makes opera fun, so it’s worth it,” she says.
Helen Robven says the experience will be more than just singing on stage.
“It’s all that backstage preparation and all the rehearsal preparation that goes along with being a part of a production of this size,” she says.
“It’s pretty big bragging rights for kids to go back to school with in Term Three.”
It is also important for Music For Canberra that it is seen as the leading education provider in that choral space for young children.
Helen says the organisation might be more proactive about shows coming to Canberra and whether it can create similar opportunities for the choir in the future.
“Once they’ve got a taste of performing once, I imagine they’ll want to do it multiple times,” she says.
Music For Canberra is a community organisation that runs choirs, orchestras, and individual and group tuition programs for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. To learn more, visit Music For Canberra.