Ten-year-old Mason Cole-Schweizer was cast against type as the antagonistic Dr. Bartolo in Rossini's comedic opera, "The Barber of Seville."
But the cherubic blond with freckles rose to the occasion, thanks to the support of the professional singers performing alongside him as part of the San Francisco Opera Guild's in-school education program.
During a recent dress rehearsal and performance in early October at St. Luke Lutheran School in Santa Rosa, Cole-Schweizer honed his acting skills, dutifully producing frowns and grimaces.
"You're going to grab this rose and throw it out the window and shake your fist," said coloratura soprano Maya Kherani, playing the role of Bartolo's ward, Rosina. "You're grumpy. You're always grumpy."
Bringing bona fide opera singers together with budding student actors is one of the most unusual aspects of the educational program Opera a la Carte, which is mounting opera performances in 110 Bay Area schools this fall.
"A lot of the kids have never seen an opera before," Kherani said. "We teach line delivery, simple staging ... things they can use in other productions."
As part of that program, the San Francisco Opera Guild will hold performances in 21 schools in Sonoma County this fall.
"The kids are into it," said Neva Turer, president of the Sonoma County chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild. "We're bringing culture and beauty to them, and they are exposed to operatic voice, classical music, set design, costume design - everything that goes into a live performance."
The guild's local chapter, which boasts 140 members, raises money for the educational program through a series of preview lectures and a benefit concert. In addition, guild members take high school students to dress rehearsals and back-stage tours of the San Francisco Opera.
Among the other local schools participating in Opera a la Carte this fall are the Alexander Valley School in Healdsburg; El Verano Elementary, Flowery and Sassarini schools in Sonoma; Bellevue, Steele Lane Elementary and Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts in Santa Rosa.
In order to take part in the program, a teacher from each school must oversee the project and help students learn their speaking parts.
"The entire school has been listening to the music, learning the story, and becoming familiar with the opera," said Jennifer Griego, who oversees the program at St. Luke Lutheran School. "All the students help sing the final song."
All the operas are 40-minute adaptations, sung in English. The professional singers perform as soloists all over the Bay Area, from Opera San Jose to Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma.
At the Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts, teacher Sierra Bradley has watched the program blossom over the past seven years. When she auditions students from her multi-age fourth/fifth grade class, the hardest part is telling those who did not get a speaking part.
"It's become part of the culture of our school," she said. "By the time most students leave our school, they will have seen six full operas, and that's more than most people."
Bradley, who studied classical voice through college, taught the students about the coloratura style (agile runs and leaps) and the Italian style of bel canto singing.
"We listen to different versions of the same aria, and how different people have added their own style to it," she said. "They think it's funny when they sing really high, but they recognize the music now, and they love the story."