An awesome night at the opera

Revere High School students set aside their initial skepticism and develop a passion for classic musical dramas

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / November 7, 2010

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What the 17-year-old expected: shrill sopranos, cheesy bravado, portly women wearing horns.

But what Xuyen Mai actually experienced at her first opera: elegance, vocal roller-coaster rides, characters who wrapped her into their lives and stayed long after the curtain dropped.

“I had a wicked good first impression; I couldn’t wait to come back,’’ the Revere High School senior said last weekend just before taking a seat for her second night out at the opera in Boston. “It’s a wonderful experience. People should give it a chance.’’

Opera, to many people, is considered staid and stuffy, a high-pitched, unintelligible amusement for the elite. But at the urban, diversely populated Revere High School, a group of students has developed an unexpected and unlikely passion for the often misunderstood 16th-century Italian performance art.

“It’s something by far that words cannot describe,’’ said 18-year-old senior Tamar Bonaventure. The rapt audience member at three operas so far added that, prior to her first show, “I really didn’t quite grasp how epic it was.’’

In evenings at the theater organized by the school’s culture club — led by youthful and energetic English teacher Nancy Barile — anywhere from 30 to 50 students, male and female, freshmen and senior, have voraciously taken in performances of such classics as “Aida,’’ “The Barber of Seville,’’ and “La Bohème.’’ And, just last week, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, they sat enraptured by “Madama Butterfly,’’ an aching tale of love between a geisha and a US Navy lieutenant; shows planned for the spring include “Lucia di Lammermoor’’ and “La Traviata.’’

In all, the group has attended about 10 operas, Barile estimated — as well as a few ballets. And sometimes students from Lawrence, Malden, and Winthrop have been invited to come along.

But it’s gone beyond just elegant nights out: Through a relationship cultivated with the production company Teatro Lirico D’Europa, students in the culture club not only receive complimentary tickets to the operas, but have also created artwork for programs and essays that are printed alongside actor bios and plot synopses.

“I want to provide my students with as many cultural experiences as possible,’’ said Barile, adding that theatergoing is also a lesson in manners and etiquette.

Ultimately, it’s a cultural opportunity many students wouldn’t otherwise get, she noted, as theater tickets don’t exactly fit into the budget of the area’s demographic; she pointed out that about 72 percent of the school’s students, based on family income, qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Initially, though, it wasn’t necessarily an experience students even wanted to have. Many were quite skeptical; some even recalled laughing at the idea when first given the opportunity after Barile saw a newspaper ad and requested tickets.

Never having been to an opera herself, Barile shared that reticence. “My roots are in rock ’n’ roll,’’ she said. “I didn’t know if I would like it.’’

But she’s since found it to be “beautiful, grand, majestic,’’ noting “timeless themes, extraordinary talent, beautiful sets, wonderful stories.’’

Students, for their part, have come to love dressing up for a genteel night out, and they sometimes get so moved by the often tragic stories that they unabashedly cry.

Mai even described biting her nails with anticipation as she waited for “The Barber of Seville’’ to start, and gripping her seat as Figaro, the central character, took the audience on an emotionally swinging, vocal ride, hitting every high and low note in a “perfect’’ solo. She was also “stoked,’’ “moved,’’ and “blown away’’ by the music and the ability of the actors to sing and project without the aid of microphones.

“It opened my eyes and made me realize what I have missed,’’ she wrote in an essay.

Other students described a similar enlightenment. For instance, since 15-year-old William Truong attended his first opera, he’s gained an interest in classical art, and he also finds himself getting more involved in the Shakespeare plays and other historical works he reads in classes.

“I was reluctant to go at first because, to be honest, it was portrayed as dull and boring,’’ he said.

Now, though, the sophomore describes it as “striking,’’ and said he’s awestruck by the ability of the actors to sing, act, and tell a story all at once. Also, the hip-hop and R&B fan finds the orchestra and classical music “marvelous.’’

Praises shared by Bonaventure, a cultured teenager who also plays violin and gushes about Vivaldi and Beethoven. Opera, she said, is one of the greatest expressions of love, and she described the actors as “genuine’’ in their movements, eye contact, and language.

“I can’t get enough,’’ she said from the lobby of the Cutler Majestic Theatre, where she and her classmates attended the opening night performance of “Madama Butterfly’’ on Oct. 29.

In all, 35 students exited a rumbling schoolbus before the show started. Wearing silky and low-cut dresses, heels, broaches, suit jackets and ties, they intermingled with older couples arm-in-arm in three-piece suits and fur and swathed in perfume, as well as with other students from Everett and Wakefield.

As the theatergoers took their seats, flutes in the pit orchestra fluttered up and down the scale and bassoons let out short, low test toots. The lights faded in the ornate, gold-trimmed theater. The crowd quieted.

Before them, the stage was set with a Japanese abode with Shoji panels. As the actors launched into song, a narrow digital strip above provided English subtitles.

In the story of doomed love set in Nagasaki, Navy Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton carelessly marries the demure, 15-year-old geisha Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San), who emerges dressed in a pink kimono embellished with her graceful namesake, and an entourage of ladies with fluttering fans and twirling parasols. Not taking her love — or the sacrifices she’s made to be with him — seriously, Pinkerton heedlessly leaves his Japanese wife with their child and remarries in America. Later, when he returns with his new love, a broken Cio-Cio-San kills herself.

As the tragedy unfurled through lyrical melody, the students sat absorbed, sometimes stiffening at the chill-inducing high notes, whispering to one another, or chuckling at comic subtleties onstage.

As Act One ended, the curtain dropped as Pinkerton led his geisha wife into their new home.

“I am loving it so far,’’ Bonaventure said a few minutes later as she stood in the lobby, crowded with her fellow theatergoers.

It was the first opera for her classmate Jennifer Sao; she called it “amazing,’’ “moving’’ and requiring a certain “maturity’’ to understand.

“Everything about it is beautiful,’’ said the Revere High senior, who did the program’s back-cover drawing of Cio-Cio-San and her young boy. “It’s almost like you’re there.’’

Bonaventure agreed, calling opera a singular, unrivaled experience.

“You may have seen musicals, you may have seen plays, but opera is totally different,’’ she said. “It’s not at all what you think it is. You’ll be swept away. It will grasp you.’’

Undergoing a metamorphosis
A digital watercolor (left) created by senior Richard Trimarchi was chosen for the cover of the “Madama Butterfly’’ program. Page 5