Ojai Youth Opera

Ojai has a brand new string to its already world-class artistic bow. Opera is finding its voice and the endeavors of Ojai Youth Opera (OYO) mark the start of something very big, ambitious and exciting, not just for Ojai youth but for the town of Ojai itself. On Sunday, August 18th at Ojai Art Centre, a rapturous audience witnessed the blossoming of this fast-emerging new facet of the arts in Ojai at “An Afternoon in Italy!”, the culmination of OYO’s second annual summer camp.

The aim of OYO is to establish a permanent and prestigious West-Coast base for developing young voices in opera. In its second year OYO has built on the success of last year and produced a show which was in turns funny, moving, utterly charming, astonishing, and genuinely impressive. Audience comments afterwards centered on people’s open and frank wonder on what OYO’s teachers and students have achieved in just 10 sessions of camp.

In their impressive finale performance Sunday, 15 students showed off 2-weeks worth of extraordinarily hard work being trained in the renowned Bel Canto tradition. They studied voice, diction, breathing, Italian language, the Alexander Technique, music theory, sight-singing from sheet music, and singing with musical accompaniment. It is a nerve-wracking business to stand up and sing an aria in front of an audience, particularly if you are very young and falter a bit right at the start, but to their ever-lasting credit each and every student sang their young lion-hearts out with poise and confidence that only grew. The audience was right behind them with wild applause at every turn. No matter that the students sang exclusively in Italian, their new skills in acting and intonation got their themes and messages across loud and clear.

OYO was conceived of and is run by two enormously talented and enthusiastic women who have made music their professions and their lives. Julija Zonic is a well-known local performer and a beloved voice and music teacher at various schools in Ojai. She studied extensively in opera and classical music, performing world-wide before moving to the US from her native Croatia and finally settling in Ojai. Juiliiard-educated Mezzo-Soprano, Rebecca Comerford, has performed as a soloist in some of the world’s most prestigious opera houses. She too has vast experience in teaching opera to children and both women are devoted to keeping the operatic tradition vital and healthy, instilling a life-long love of it in their students both locally and beyond. What was clear from Sunday’s performance was that under their tutelage - and that of this year’s guest artist, New York professional contralto, Nicole Mitchell - OYO’s students have been given a rich and unforgettable experience this summer, that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.

The afternoon’s program allowed each student to showcase their achievements in both solo and ensemble performances. There was a comic scene from Puccini featuring wonderful ensemble work from Mattie Ann White, Sophie Massey, Ami Wallmark, Elizabeth Spiller, Ella Giuliani, Brian Orser, Maddie Moore, and Carys Garvey, with some outstanding Acting of A Corpse by Mr Smitty West before he assumed his role as one of the three accompanying pianists - the others being Raelynn Clare and Jennifer Radisch.

There followed a delightful series of arias sung with great professionalism by Kyra Maal King, Annika Bullock, Maya Mouderres, Coralyn Moss, Elizabeth Spiller and Brianna Luna. Then came a wonderfully polished and highly entertaining duet from the gifted Camila Lemere and the quite astonishing young bass baritone talent, Brian Orser, in a scene from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”. In the next scene, Rhett Speer made a wonderful Orfeo at the entrance to the Underworld, begging the young Furies to take pity on him. In the final scene, the three teachers joined their students on stage for a powerful, rousing performance from Verdi’s “Nabucco”. On the banks of the Euphrates the enslaved Israelites long for their homeland and OYO brought it to life, proving that with good dramatic interpretation, language is no longer a barrier to undrstanding; proving that opera is far more accessible than its reputation supposes. It was a glorious, transporting sound and it brought the house down as the stunned audience cheered wildly in appreciation.

Ojai has a lot to look forward to as this exciting and ambitious new endeavor goes from strength to strength.