Opera — the melding of all performing and visual art forms — is big. For a child, sharing the stage of a major opera company with larger-than-life personalities and working with world-renowned conductors and directors is a heady opportunity, and a potentially intimidating one. When children come as performers into the opera world, they need the support of someone who is used to working with children. They need someone like Karen Reeves.
Reeves has prepared almost all of the child singers who have appeared on the HGO stage since 1991. At that time, she was a director with the Singing Boys of Houston (now Houston Boychoir) when HGO Chorus Master Richard Bado, who was an acquaintance, asked if he could sit in on one of her rehearsals. Bado was looking for boy singers to fill the roles of the Three Genii in Mozart's The Magic Flute, and after watching Reeves work with her choristers, he asked if she would help select the boys for his production and prepare them musically. He was so pleased with her work that he eventually asked her to develop an HGO Children's Chorus so that the company wouldn't have to bring in other groups, as it had in the past. "He turned the Children's Chorus over to me but was very supportive," Reeves recalls. "He has been a true mentor."
Reeves's background prepared her uniquely for working with young voices. She is a singer herself, and has sung frequently with the HGO adult chorus (although she has found it works better if she doesn't perform in operas that involve her young charges). "I could have gone either to music theater or opera, but with opera, you have something to sink your teeth into. It's all about the music," she says. It was her goal to sing professionally until she was part way through her graduate program. She had completed a successful summer program in Europe when, as she remembers, "I realized I was only one of many good lyric sopranos."
In 1986 she began teaching non-voice music majors at Rice University and discovered she really enjoyed teaching. "Teaching, for me, is not a backup profession," Reeves states. She worked at Lamar and Debakey high schools, has taught part-time for more than 20 years at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and was the choir director for St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Houston Heights. And, perhaps just as important as anything else, she is the mother of two teenagers, both of whom have been singing since early childhood.
As is so often the case, the more Reeves worked with HGO, the more she became aware of the company's needs and found ways to apply her abilities. For the past 11 years, she has developed and led summer Opera Camps, which were born from the need for better-prepared children for Children's Chorus. Opera Camp initially focused on teaching audition songs, because, says Reeves, "many children come to auditions with selections that are completely inappropriate. I've often just asked children to sing 'Happy Birthday' instead of the songs they've prepared. Everybody knows that song, and it has an octave jump. You can tell a ton from the way they handle that." Almost every year, three Opera Camps are offered, geared for different ages. All of them stress healthy singing (no belting!), and various groups study theory, audition techniques, and solo and ensemble singing.
In 1999 Reeves also agreed to direct the new High School Voice Studio (HSVS). The HSVS is modeled on the Houston Grand Opera Studio, HGO's training program for young artists, which was designed to bridge the gap between a singer's college or conservatory training and the realities of a professional career. The High School Voice Studio bridges another, earlier gulf — the one between high school and conservatory. It is a year-long program for high school seniors, designed to build their skills and get them into solid music programs.
In a typical day, Reeves wears different hats. As the director of HSVS, she teaches two or three voice lessons offsite (each member receives a private weekly lesson with her), communicates with HSVS parents and universities, and sets up voice lessons in conjunction with campus visits. As the Children's Chorus director, she leads music rehearsals and attends staging rehearsals, helping the director position children for optimum sound and, in general, acting as an advocate for the children.
The choristers for Hansel and Gretel range in age from seven to 17. Their music is a little more complicated than that of some other operas because not all of it is in unison — much of it is in two or three parts. Most younger children need to sing melody, says Reeves, so older singers are needed to anchor the two- and three-part singing. Some of the choristers for the current production also serve as puppeteers, although luckily they don't have to sing and manipulate puppets at the same time.
On December 1 the Children's Chorus performs with Houston Ballet in Carmina Burana for the Ballet's Jubilee of Dance. It will be the first time that the Chorus has performed with another company. Because the one-night event coincides with the opening performance of Hansel and Gretel, two separate Children's Chorus groups have been formed. Reeves will pull off a tricky balancing act that evening as she looks after both of them. "The Ballet hired an assistant director, Rob Seible, to help me. Otherwise, I couldn't have done it," she declares.
She is also looking ahead to The Cunning Little Vixen, which HGO performs this spring and in which there are four small singing roles for children and an eight-member children's chorus. "Every time I think I've done everything, something new comes along," says Reeves.
"What I really enjoy," she continues, "is seeing the light come on, when they 'get' something for the first time. I enjoy seeing them grow." She recalls one girl in particular who performed in a Hansel and Gretel ten years ago and asked for tickets to an HGO staging of Madame Butterfly. "She and her mother attended and said they wept through the entire performance. It opened up a whole new world for them. Recently a singer who performed at HGO as a child told me it was an unrivaled experience, and marveled that the children in the cast were treated as professionals, on equal footing with the 'stars.' That kind of experience will be remembered for a lifetime."
Laura Chandler is the editorial director for Houston Grand Opera.