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Annual UC Merced Children’s Opera Showcases the Arts to Local Little Ones

May 21, 2019
The Children’s Opera is geared toward children ages 3 and older and is just 45 minutes in length.
The Children’s Opera is geared toward children ages 3 and older and is just 45 minutes in length.

Parents don’t have to venture to San Francisco to give their children a taste of opera. With UC Merced’s Children’s Opera, little ones can have a unique cultural experience without straying outside city limits.

The Children’s Opera is geared toward children ages 3 and older. Just like the audience members, the performance is mini in size — just 45-minutes long — and features classical music coupled with an engaging story.

Each year the production changes, but there is always a lesson incorporated into the script. This year’s performance of “Baobob” has an environmental message, which is not foreign to UC Merced, and teaches kids about deforestation.

The opera follows a fortune hunter who arrives on an island in search of treasure. Tree keepers aim to thwart the hunter’s plans of chopping down the sacred Baobob tree. The fight to save the tree takes center stage, requiring the audience’s involvement in the interactive production in which the Merced Children’s Holiday Choir makes a guest appearance.

“From beginning to end, each year the children are completely engrossed in the piece and that is so rewarding to see,” said Director Jenni Samuelson, a lecturer in the global arts studies program at UC Merced.

The cast is composed of three university students, including one from UC Merced, along with two professional actors from Los Angeles.

The Children’s Opera has been an annual production since 2009, when Samuelson was approached by a donor interested in providing children in the Merced area more exposure to opera. As a former children’s outreach performer for the San Francisco Opera, Samuelson jumped at the opportunity to make this a reality for the Merced community.

“The timing was great as I had a kindergartener at the time and this was something that was on my heart anyway,” Samuelson said.

Actors perform a scene from the Children's Opera production of "Baobob."
Actors perform a scene from the Children's Opera production of "Baobob."

This year, 3,500 students are expected to flood the UC Merced campus to experience the Children’s Opera the week of May 20-24 for 10 performances over five days. Students from all over the county come to the campus productions, which are sponsored by the Merced County Office of Education, Merced County Education Foundation, Center for Humanities, Arts UC Merced Presents and the Betty Scalice Foundation.

However, the experience is not just limited to the students’ time on campus. Samuelson said a lot of effort goes into preparing students for what is — for many of them — a brand-new art form. Teachers are given curriculum to prepare the students for the production, including operatic vocabulary, musical snippets, art project ideas and writing prompts.

“We try to make this a really quality learning experience for them before and after they come,” Samuelson said.

There is a focus on showcasing the university to the young students as well. Each year, a point is made for faculty or staff to greet the students and welcome them to UC Merced before the performance starts. Because this is often the first trip for many students to a university, emphasis is placed on the fact that one day, these students could return to UC Merced as Bobcats, Samuelson said.

“This year was the first time I have heard that we now have current students who fondly remember their first time to UC Merced was for the Children’s Opera, which is pretty amazing,” Samuelson said.

Community members can also experience the UC Merced Children’s Opera at a public performance downtown. Sponsored by Dr. Art Kamangar, the Office of the Chancellor and Arts UC Merced Presents, the presentation of “Baobob” takes place at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 25, at the Kamangar Center at the Merced Theater. Space is limited. Register here.