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Columbia high schoolers find their voices at Project Opera Camp

“The most important thing is don’t stop singing.”

It’s OK to make mistakes, Brenton O’Hara assured the performance cast. But they can’t let the audience see it in their faces, and they must not stop singing.

Sure, there would be mistakes for the dozen high schoolers who, in the span of just two weeks, had learned to sing and choreograph a 15-minute opera. It’s been a steep learning curve for the teens, most of whom had never even seen an opera, much less performed on a public stage, before attending Project Opera Camp.

A first-year program co-founded by University of South Carolina graduates O’Hara and Kate McKinney, the two-week Project Opera Camp has given campers a crash course not only in the arts of opera and on-stage performance, but in self-esteem and life skills.

“Within the opera performance itself, there’s just intrinsic value. Music, it warms your heart,” McKinney said. “You have to be assertive in your presentation when you’re on stage in front of people. You’re making yourself vulnerable. You’re putting yourself out there.”

The camp was born from McKinney and O’Hara’s $20,000 prize-winning pitch in USC’s Proving Ground entrepreneurship competition last fall.

The pair had witnessed the benefits musical performance can instill in children while directing an opera during McKinney’s senior year at USC. Both voice-performance majors in college, they wanted to continue spreading the good of the art form, particularly to young people who might not ordinarily be exposed to it.

As a result, Project Opera Camp was offered for free to all of its students, many of whom come from schools with large populations of students receiving free and reduced lunches, traditional indicators of poverty.

Augmented by life skills workshops on topics such as college readiness, money management and entrepreneurship, the bulk of the camp focused on voice lessons and rehearsing songs and choreography.

“People throw the word ‘opera’ around, and you immediately have the idea in your head of, like, the fat lady in the viking hat or something that’s elitist and unapproachable,” McKinney said. “But for the most part, when you really delve into the art form, it’s very accessible. It tells stories. Storytelling is inherently human, and opera does a wonderful job of telling the story through music.”

On Thursday, a day before their culminating public performance, 13 campers started rehearsal with a full run-through, punctuated by occasionally forgotten lyrics and fumbling dance steps. But the progress they had made in just under two weeks was evident, and their confidence grew visibly with every repetition.

The campers’ rendition of “Inner Light,” an abbreviated performance of the children’s opera by composer Roger Ames, features a loose story reflecting the nature of love and relationships.

The music, “takes you into a whole other world,” said Xavier Thompson, an 18-year-old who was encouraged by his Columbia High School music teacher to participate in the camp.

“You shall be simple, you shall be right, if only you follow your inner light,” the chorus sang in harmony, somewhat timidly in an early trial then with more boldness as the rehearsal wore on.

“I think it sort of encapsulated what we were trying to do (through the camp),” O’Hara said of the opera selection. “Your inner voice has value, and learning how to share it – not just singing, but all these other (skills), too.”

The camp has been a self-esteem-building experience for a number of the campers.

“My confidence has gone from a ‘one’ to a solid ‘nine,’” 17-year-old Haley Brown said.

At the end of the week, 17-year-old soloist Maria Streater was still not entirely comfortable being in the spotlight, she said. Her voice, though, wowed her peers.

“I don’t know what you have to be nervous about,” 16-year-old Quest Morris told her in between rehearsals Thursday.

Stepping forward during a run-through, Streater fixed her eyes ahead of her and took a confident breath.

“I used to dream I was a bird flying high above the earth,” she sang out loudly, clearly, not a quiver in her voice. “And with my wings I’d catch the air and fill it with my song.”

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.

If you go

Project Opera Camp will perform “Inner Light” Friday at 7 p.m. at the Columbia Music Festival Association, 914 Pulaski St., Columbia.

The performance is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and seats are first come, first served.

Donations will be accepted at the door from anyone wishing to support the camp’s future programming.

For more information, visit www.projectoperacamp.org.

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