NEW BEDFORD - At the Zeiterion Theatre here, Frank Ward Jr. is offering guidelines on appropriate audience behavior.
"My favorite way for you to show your appreciation," he announces, "is to scream and shout."
It's not a difficult assignment for the largely preteen crowd. So after leading a couple of practice rounds of "Bravo!" Ward switches gears to sing the role of the Father in Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel."
All in a day's work for Boston Lyric Opera. Like other pieces in the group's repertoire of operas for children, Humperdinck's 1893 depiction of the title pair, who meet a witch with a literal taste for children, has been streamlined into a five-singer, one-hour English-language production. In addition to school performances, the group offers family productions, open to the public: two today at John Hancock Hall and two on May 4 at Brandeis University's Spingold Theater.
The New Bedford performance has been arranged through the city's public school system, which has primed the crowd of students and parents. In addition to classroom visits from the singers, the preparatory curriculum has included district-wide essay and poster contests, with winning entries on display in the theater's lobby. (Juliet Cochrane's poster, the prizewinner among third- to fifth-grade artists, is particularly eye-catching, with a wryly smiling witch and a gingerbread house that has a conspicuous bite taken out of it.) A handful of local students are pressed into service as gingerbread children; the rest take Ward's instruction on applause to heart.
Director Wesley Savick's production is sprinkled with simple, ingenious flourishes; a shooting star at the end of the famous "Evening Prayer," for example, elicits an approving murmur from the crowd. In some ways, such touches seem a nod to the late, legendary conductor-director Sarah Caldwell. Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston began educational outreach in the 1960s; a touring company, Opera New England, was spun off in 1974, turned its focus exclusively to children's opera in 1989, and came under the BLO umbrella as its education and community programs department in 1998.
Timothy Steele, now in his fifth season as music director of the department, alternates between accompanying performances on piano (as in New Bedford) and conducting an orchestra (as in today's John Hancock Hall performances).
After the performance, Steele (also the music director for Opera Providence) offers a postmortem. "It had really nice energy," he says. "It's great to perform in a theater like this, with a responsive audience like this. We can feed off of that energy." Could there be such a thing as too much audience energy? Steele says the opposite is the real problem: "Sometimes there will be a principal or a teacher, and they're bound and determined to make sure the kids sit on their hands and behave," he says. "Those performances are the hardest."
The format contrasts with much of children's opera in Europe, which has focused more on original works composed specifically for young performers (a participatory approach locally represented by such groups as North Cambridge Family Opera; see below). But BLO's condensed versions of standard operatic repertoire are less about teaching musical skills and more about expanding cultural appetites, sowing seeds of operatic patronage even as arts education is increasingly squeezed.
"It's for kids who've never been to the opera, who maybe don't even know what opera is," Steele says. The productions try to dispel the genre's perceived formality by focusing on its foundation: pure musical theater, telling the story through song.
Steele is of two minds regarding cutting the operas into one-hour serving sizes. "It works the best, given our audience, but I think adults often underestimate kids' attention span," he says. His own children, he points out, often attend full operas; a shortened running time may alleviate unfamiliarity, but quality storytelling is ultimately the best defense against fidgeting. In a 1978 interview, Caldwell made the same point. "I think children deserve the best performance we can give," she said. "If we turn on children with good performances, then we can build audiences for the future."
It's certainly a more proactive introduction to the genre than some have encountered in the past. The great French composer Hector Berlioz - whose monumental opera "Les Troyens" will be performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra later this spring - first caught the bug at age 11, during, of all things, his first Communion: As the choir sang the Eucharistic hymn, "I thought I saw heaven open," he recalled, "a heaven of love and chaste delight, a thousand times purer and more beautiful than the one I had so often been told about."
He later discovered that the tune for the hymn had been borrowed from a comic opera by the now-forgotten Nicolas Dalayrac, called "Nina, or the Woman Crazed With Love." Given any opportunity, it seems, opera is liable to work its peculiar magic.