Opera for the Young, a long-established children's opera company accustomed to playing elementary school gyms, will take a much bigger stage next weekend at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago

Ravinia, the oldest music festival in the country, offers a series of kids concerts, like Golden Dragon Acrobats from China and a group called Mariachi Divas. 

On Saturday, Aug. 29, Madison's Opera for the Young will take its production of "Beauty and the Beast" to Ravinia, performing in the already sold out 850-seat Martin Theatre. There are still $5 lawn seats available.

"The kids are so excited to hear the crazy high notes," said Saira Frank, a soprano who plays Beauty. "They're so enthralled with hearing the sound." 

Opera for the Young began in 1970, and has been touring the current version of kid-friendly opera adaptations for about 25 years. 

Under the direction of Diane Garton Edie, operas like Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love" are shortened, with some roles changed and added parts for children, who learn the music in advance.

In Opera for the Young's "Cinderella," for example, the children play mice. They're pirates and policemen in "The Pirates of Penzance," cookies in "Hansel and Gretel" and, in a "Barber of Seville" set in a '50s soda shop, they play high schoolers in red and white letter jackets. 

Opera for the Young has nine shows in its repertoire. Other companies around the country often rent its productions; a company in Newfoundland is renting "Cinderella" this year.

"We could go into the same elementary school every year and they're never going to see a repeat," Frank said.

She particularly loves this show, she said, because "Beauty has such great music." 

"Beauty and the Beast," adapted by Garton Edie and Dan Plummer, was commissioned to celebrate the company's 45th year. In their version, the Beast lives on a magical island in the Indian Ocean, where Beauty's father (played by Nick Pulikowski) is shipwrecked. 

When he becomes ill, Father convinces the Beast to let him use the "Wishing Waterfall" (a cameo role for an adult, usually a teacher) to bring Beauty from Europe to the island.

As in the original fairy tale, Beauty takes her father's place, and the love story progresses.

Opera for the Young's production features Bollywood dancing. J. Adam Shelton, a local tenor and music educator, plays the Beast, and pianist Vincent Fuh will be the accompanist in Chicago.

"We perform about 200 shows each year," Frank said. Children "are very familiar with the Disney. Seeing that fairy tale is adaptable, that Disney isn't definitive, there's other versions of that story ... it opens up their imagination to another place. It awakens their curiosity." 

In "Beauty and the Beast," the children's chorus plays exotic birds in colorful costumes. There are also two children's cameo roles for a strawberry and a banana; in this version, Disney's Mrs. Potts has turned into a fruit basket called Tooty Fruity (mezzo Sara Litchfield), and her children are fruit. 

The music for "Beauty" was written by Andre Gretry, a French composer who Frank compared to "a contemporary Mozart." His "Zémire et Azor" was based on "Beauty and the Beast." 

Frank has been impressed at how well the children engage with even some of the longer music, like an exciting five minute aria for Beauty and a four-minute quartet toward the opera's middle, where Beauty begs the Beast to return to her father in Europe. 

"The kids seem to relate to the music really well," Frank said. 

On Saturday, the adult cameo of the wishing waterfall will be played by the CEO and president of Ravinia, Welz Kauffman. The children's chorus will come from a summer camp style workshop at Ravinia called Reach Teach Play.

While the Martin Theatre has sold out, there are lawn seats where people can picnic outside and listen.

For Frank, a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Madison's masters program in opera performance, performing at Ravinia will be a wonderful way to conclude her touring years. 

"I've toured with Opera for the Young, this is my seventh season," said Frank, who is now on the administrative staff. 

"I never got sick of seeing how children interact with the opera. They are so engaged and so excited about it. It's an exciting thing to share."


Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.