Children’s opera plants seeds of environmentalism

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published April 15, 2015

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DETROIT — For many families, one of the highlights of spring and summer is growing a garden. But what if pollution so badly damaged the world around us that it could no longer sustain even a simple plant?


That’s the premise of the futuristic children’s opera “The Very Last Green Thing,” written by Cary John Franklin with a libretto by Michael Patrick Albano. Set in a classroom in the year 2492, “Green” depicts students — raised by an android — taking a rare field trip outside, protected from the hazardous conditions by goggles and masks. One of the youngsters stumbles upon an extraordinary sight: a tiny, withered plant, believed to be the last green thing on the planet. The discovery leads the students to consider the environmental ravages of past generations and the importance of protecting the planet for the future.


At 2:30 p.m. April 25, the Michigan Opera Theatre Children’s Chorus will perform “The Very Last Green Thing” at the Detroit Opera House downtown.


The MOTCC last performed “Green” in spring 2010, but that doesn’t mean this show will be identical to the previous one. For one thing, there’s a different cast.


“Every time a show is performed, it is different than the last,” said Dianna Hochella, assistant director of the MOTCC and conductor of the Principal Chorus, in an email interview. “The students interpret it differently and bring a new understanding to the story. Their understanding and interpretation comes from what they are learning at home and in school about the environment and environmental issues and appreciation of the environment. The students always impress me with their thoughtfulness on the issue.”


MOTCC Director Suzanne Mallare Acton, of Grosse Pointe Park, said there were several reasons why the MOTCC felt it would be a good time to produce this show again.


“MOTCC endeavors to present operas that raise awareness of various social issues to children, families and new audiences through a musical and unique presentation,” she said in an email interview, adding that past shows have dealt with topics such as self-esteem and charity. “‘The Very Last Green Thing’ offered a unique presentation (through) music and science of the growing problem of pollution and the harmful effects on our environment. Due to the positive response from our 2010 performance, and with Earth Week coinciding with our performance schedule, it seemed like a great opportunity to present it again.”


Musically, the show is rich and varied.


“The music of ‘The Very Last Green Thing,’ by Cary John Franklin, has moments of minimalism as the cast explores the modern earth on their field trip; it has music that is jarring and stern that represents the Android character; and it has beautifully lyrical sections that show concern and hope for the environment,” Hochella said. “(It features) a wonderful soundscape to make the story come to life.”


The same can be said about the show’s production.


“Visually, audiences can expect to see a study in contrasts,” said Kelsey Ross, of Birmingham, stage director for the show, in an email interview. “The two choruses, both past and present, function very differently in their respective worlds. The present chorus is very orderly and concise. They operate in straight lines, and every move they make serves a direct purpose. The world they live in is sterile and high-tech, which is highlighted by the use of projections. The past has a much looser and organic approach to the world. They often move about circuitously and play instruments made from found objects; their world is colorful and passionate.”


Families are invited to come to the theater at 1:30 p.m. April 25 for a series of interactive programs on how they can improve the environment, with demonstrations by the Michigan Science Center; Greening of Detroit; Arts and Scraps; Disabled American Veterans; the Sierra Club; artist Tim Burke, of Detroit Industrial Gallery; and many more.


Students from the C&G Newspapers coverage area in the MOTCC Preparatory Chorus are Clara Schwyn of Birmingham, Molly Levin of Bloomfield Hills, Nya Newsome and Mackenzie Taylor of Detroit, Alexandra Beck of Farmington, Natalie Nannoshi of Farmington Hills, Violet Whitmore of Grosse Pointe City, Nina Georgeff of Pleasant Ridge, Stephanie Barroso of Rochester, Bridgitte Zook of Roseville, Memphis Griffin of Utica, Natalie Watson of Warren, and Matteo Papadopoulos of West Bloomfield.


Students from the C&G Newspapers coverage area in the MOTCC Principal Chorus are Rachel Militmore, Kevyn Roessler and Marcela Valdivieso of Bloomfield Hills; Jaeden and Jehnya Footitt, Jayla Granger and SteFannie Savoy of Detroit; Owen Grice of Grosse Pointe City; Melody Balos of Grosse Pointe Park; Emily Mackinnon of Macomb Township; Maurice Barroso, Ryan Blankenburg, Kristina Nash and Danielle Phillips of Rochester; Aditya Nambiar and Laura Rosales of Rochester Hills; and Alex Beatty and Edward Eichenhorn of West Bloomfield. Students in the MOTCC hail from as far away as Marysville, Ann Arbor and Windsor.


Since its formation in 2007, the MOTCC has had about 400 participants. Initially, Mallare Acton said the group averaged about 50 students ages 10-16, but in 2012, the  MOTCC expanded to include a preparatory chorus for students ages 8-11, and now as many as 80 children are members in a given year. There are about 60 students in the Principal and Preparatory choruses this year, a spokesperson said.


“It is a unique program and only one of a few in the country that provides this type of training,” Mallare Acton said. “The children perform a concert on the Detroit Opera House main stage in December — ‘A Winter Fantasy’ — and present an annual opera in the spring. The Principal Chorus sings in the MOT adult operas, which include a children’s chorus, like next year’s ‘La Bohème.’ We have expanded our performances to include venues outside the metro Detroit area. In January, we performed in Grand Rapids, and in May, we have been invited to perform in Gaylord.”


The Detroit Opera House is located at 1526 Broadway St. Tickets are $15-$50 and can be purchased by calling (313) 237-SING or visiting www.MichiganOpera.org. For more information or the online teacher resource guide for “The Very Last Green Thing, visit www.motcc.org. See the website, as well, for more on auditions for the 2015-16 season, which will be held in May.

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