Post image for Sharing the love, from Mooch to Mpingo

Sharing the love, from Mooch to Mpingo

April 4, 2013

What do a singing lion, an opera coach, and a high school in Nairobi have in common? “It’s a good question,” says Kim Carballo with a laugh. “Basically, it’s about sharing the love.”

The love of music, that is. Carballo is the coordinating opera coach for Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music Opera Theatre as well as a private piano teacher. She’s also the motivating force behind Roundabout Opera for Kids (ROK), a nonprofit music outreach organization that Carballo founded about five years ago. The group is made up of students at the Jacobs School who visit area schools to perform opera.

From Magic Flute to Mooch

Carballo explains that ROK was inspired, in part, by the bad economy. “I formed it when the economy started to tank, and arts education was being pulled out of public schools,” she says. “At the same time, I was working with university students who needed more vocal performance opportunities. So it was a hand-and-glove fit: more experience for my students as well as support for a population that wasn’t being served.”

Initially, ROK presented free 30-minute programs that featured a sampling of opera arias as well as greatly condensed versions of longer shows such as The Magic Flute. (ROK also provides related curriculum materials to teachers.) Soon, though, Carballo and her ROK collaborators realized they needed new material. “You don’t want to show operas about murders to second-graders, and that eliminates a whole lot of repertoire,” Carballo notes.

She decided to commission pieces designed for ROK’s unusual opera venues and audiences and approached Lauren Bernofsky, a composer living in Bloomington who has written pieces for children and young audiences.

Bernofsky responded right away with an idea: write an opera based on Scott Russell Sanders’s novel Engineer of Beasts.

Author of 20 books, Sanders is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Indiana University Bloomington. Engineer of Beasts is his young-adult novel set in a future where Earth’s cities are under domes for protection against the deadly environment and the only animals left are robotic ones living in “disneys,” or mechanized zoos. That is, until a 12 year old girl named Mooch comes along to change everything.

Watch a brief video from Mooch the Magnificent:

The ROK adaptation of Sanders’s novel is called Mooch the Magnificent. Sanders’s libretto, based on the book, is a playful text “somewhere between Sondheim and Dr. Seuss,” Carballo says. “It’s the only opera I know of that mentions both ‘sassafrass’ and ‘poop’!”

The one-act children’s opera featuring singing animals premiered in late August 2012 and has been performed dozens of times over the last school year. In spring 2013, Mooch the Magnificent won the OPERA PUPPETS Mainstage Award in the Boston Contempo Festival & International Composers Competition and will receive a staged performance in Boston. And judging from the responses of teachers and students, the opera has had a big impact on its young audiences.

“What surprised me about the children’s reactions were the questions asking if the story was real and true,” Carballo says. The kids would say, ‘Did this actually happen someplace? Are there people who have to live in a bubble?’ In part, I think that’s because children have a natural empathy for fantasy, but also, I think it’s evidence of how hard the performers worked to bring their characters to life and how vividly Scott and Lauren rendered the show.”

 ‘Through music all is possible’

Roundabout Opera for Kids has been generously supported by community organizations and by Indiana University, but creating and carrying out a “season” of two youth-oriented operas (ROK performs a different show for middle- and high-schoolers) is a lot of work. So why keep it up along with a demanding career as vocal coach and pianist?

Because Carballo believes opera is a “super-effective” learning tool that excites children and opens them up to experiencing new art forms.“I grew up in north-central Missouri, and I didn’t see opera until I came to Bloomington,” she says by way of explanation. “There just weren’t opportunities. I think it’s important to do what I can to create those opportunities.”

That same commitment to musical outreach and education also has led Carballo to Africa. Carballo collaborated with Jacobs School alumna Diana Nixon, who runs Mpingo Studios (mpingo is the name of an East African blackwood tree that is used to make some woodwind instruments, including the oboe and the clarinet). Last year, Carballo, Nixon, and Nixon’s daughter, current Jacobs School voice student Liz Nixon, led “Tunaweza Kimuziki” (Through Music All is Possible), a two-week music workshop in Nairobi, Kenya. The brainchild of the Nixon mother-daughter duo, the workshop was carried out in collaboration with Kenyatta University, St. James Primary School, Nairobi’s Administration Police Academy band, and Nairobi School (a secondary school with 1,500 students).

Together, Carballo and the Nixons worked with more than 200 students in and around Nairobi, teaching them music history, voice, piano, brass, and woodwinds. But as much as the three Hoosiers brought to Kenya, Carballo says they received as much or more in return. “The workshop was organized to further arts development, but when it actually happened, it was very much an exchange of music and culture and ideas,” she says.

Virtual cultural exchange

And those exchanges have continued, virtually. “While were there, we just fell in love with the folks we were working with, and the students showed a lot of interest in continuing to work together,” Carballo says. So the lessons have continued over Skype.

During spring semester 2013, music students at Kenyatta University and members of the Administration Police band (comparable to our U.S. Marine Band) are meeting with students in the clarinet pedagogy class taught by Jacobs School Professor Howard Klug. Several other Jacobs School faculty members have offered virtual classes, too, including Brian Horne, associate professor of voice, and Jeffrey Gershman, associate professor of bands. Carballo notes that Gershman, has done several Skype sessions with the entire band in Kenya.

The first Kenya workshop proved so positive that the Nixons and Carballo are doing it again in May 2013, traveling with Jeffrey Gershman this year. The workshop will have the same goals and general format, but it will be “on steroids,” says Carballo. “We’ll be working with the primary school, two universities, the Police band, the St. James Parish choir, and the secondary schools.”

Reflecting on the first Kenya workshop experience, Carballo recalls an amazing moment that came at the end of a three-day session working with students from Nairobi’s government boarding schools (the equivalent of an American high school) which are typically same-sex schools.

“When we brought the students together, most of them had never sung with a member of the opposite sex before,” Carballo says. “We ended a really intense three days together with a full performance. It was exhausting. But afterward, the kids staged an impromptu jam session that lasted well after the workshop closed. They just couldn’t get enough of it.”

And that, Carballo says, is exactly the point. “The teaching and vocal coaching I get to do are interesting and appealing,” she says, “but really, it’s all about sharing the love.”

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