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Opera Experience Leaves Students ‘Bugging Out’ at Kennedy Center Millenium Stage Performance

Usually the phrase “Bug Off!” is not one that beckons participation, but several area organizations, and one international one, recently teamed up in hopes that an opera of that title would tempt local schoolchildren and their parents to become more active in the fine arts.

A cross-continental partnership has been forged between the Opera Company of Northern Ireland and Fairfax County, the James Lee Community Center and the Washington National Opera to bring an opportunity for area youth who might otherwise encounter barriers to participation to experience the excitement of live performance.

The production, entitled Bug Off! and directed by Orla McKeagney, is an adaptation loosely based on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and tells the story of a young boy who wakes up one morning transformed into a beetle. His new life is narrated by the mysterious “Dreamweaver,” played by Irish baritone Brendan Collins.

Students attended workshops at the James Lee Community Center to study the art of opera, learn theatre and acting skills and create their own three-dimensional masks to be used during the performance. Following months of preparation and five days of intensive rehearsals, ending on May 3 with an open-to-the-public dress rehearsal, participants took their show on the road for the weekend. The entertaining musical was put on at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on May 4 and Imagination Stage in Bethesda on May 5.

The 40 participating students were recruited by officials who participated in a professional development workshop for recreational specialists held in early January in Fairfax County. Officials chose students who may not have encountered theatre arts in their lifetime, due to economic and social obstacles. The Opera Company of Northern Ireland seeks to reach out to areas where the fine arts may not normally take root.

“I see it as something that will be pivotal down the road for them,” said Allison Mulligan, Regional Coordinator for the Fairfax County Department of Community and Recreation Services. “This was hard, and they stuck it out. When they encounter something else in their life that is difficult, they will have this to look back on.”

The production itself was full of song and dance. Children learned how to interact and compliment the sonorous “Dreamweaver” with their own voices and movements.

“When I first heard Brendan sing, I was like ‘Wow, that man’s got some big lungs!’” said Max Johnson, a 10 year-old participant in the production. Most of the 41 participating students had never heard opera before, let alone performed in one, and were surprised to hear the baritone belt out his first notes.

Many of the children have expressed interest in continuing to act and sing in other community groups since their experience at James Lee. The center has been inspired to form their own community youth drama group to capitalize on the attention. The group will have the same focus on giving children without exposure to the arts a chance to experience it, and to make it affordable and easy for working parents.

The opera series is part of “Rediscover Northern Ireland,” a collaborative effort between the United States and Ireland to introduce Irish culture and arts to a U.S. audience.