The Magazine of South Carolina

As Ellen Douglas Schlaefer demonstrates . . .

Opera Is for Children!


Soprano Pegi Roberts, baritone Philip Bouknight & tenor Calvin Lee

Soprano Pegi Roberts visits with children after a "Three Little Pigs" performance

Baritone Philip Bouknight in rehearsal for "The Three Little Pigs"

Article by Aïda Rogers/Photos by Richard Durlach

For Ellen Douglas Schlaefer, the only sound better than an opera going well is children going crazy. She hears both when her company performs opera for kids.

"How many of you speak Italian?" she asks a group of wigglers sitting cross-legged at her feet. When none reply, she admonishes, "You do. You say ‘pizza!’ You say ‘spaghetti!’ "

The children laugh loudly, but not as loudly as when she instructs them to say "Bravo!" (for men), "Brava!" (for women) and "Bravissimo!" when they really like what the singers are singing. Children like to talk in a foreign language, and Schlaefer knows that. "Bravissimo!" they shout when Wolfgang Bigbad—the wolf in "The Three Little Pigs"—falls down. Adults who think children wouldn’t love this production, with its cartoonish characters singing goofy songs to Mozart, would be wrong. Schlaefer makes opera fun.

"I’m not out to convert the world to opera," the 42-year-old Columbian explains. "But I do believe we have to give people chances to make choices. All you can do is offer an opportunity to hear something different."

Right now, Schlaefer’s FBN Productions offers four different operas. Besides "The Three Little Pigs," a 30-minute production for children from first to sixth grades, there’s "The Telephone" for 6th through 12th graders, "The Words and the Music—A Game Show" for 7th through 12th graders and "King of the Clouds" for high schoolers. None of the operas lasts longer than 45 minutes; each has a message and a study guide for teachers. The moral of "The Three Little Pigs," for instance, is to use the library. To quote its lyrics: "When you fear a thing that’s scary/Just take your questions to the library."

"The Telephone," written in 1947 by Gian Carlo Menotti, pokes fun at the difficulties people have communicating. "The Words and the Music" is a game show using scenes from various American operas, introducing viewers to "Porgy and Bess," "West Side Story" and "Candide." Country music composer Michael Ching and librettist Hugh Moffatt wrote "King of the Clouds;" it concerns drug abuse, guns, violence and single-parent families. Besides making a point, the programs allow students to see professional opera singers at work. They also provide those singers an outlet to perform.

"I work all over the world, and I run into people all the time who say, ‘I’m from South Carolina but I can’t work here,’ " Schlaefer says. "So I’m slowly trying to build a stopgap for young singers who want to perform and give them experience, and at the same time provide a curriculum tool for teachers to incorporate arts education."

To Schlaefer, live performances offer children something they don’t get from television, movie theaters or VCRs. "In any kind of live performance, there’s an energy that flows over the footlights that on many levels is indescribable," she says, noting that church often is the only chance some children have to sit quietly and experience live music. "The audience-performer relationship is very unique—these performers are here doing this for you, and you are here for them."

So far, so good, Schlaefer and company say. "I get great joy watching these kids come to life and enjoying what I didn’t have an opportunity to see myself as a child," says Philip Bouknight, a baritone from Batesburg-Leesville. "They’re watching, they’re smiling, they’re spellbound. They catch everything. You cannot fool a kid. If you can convince a kid, you can convince any audience."

Convincing was one thing Schlaefer had to do when she decided to form her own company. While many told her South Carolina wouldn’t support her ideas, others were encouraging. Two desires kept her going: to give back to the public school system that nurtured her music and stage experience, and to get revenge.

"Years ago, when I was in graduate school, the wife of one of my professors said, ‘Oh, you’re from South Carolina. They’re so backwards down there; they don’t know anything.’ I was insulted, highly insulted, but I didn’t say anything. There’s an enormous amount of talent in this state and we’re growing fast. I want to be part of it."

Some of that enormous talent can be seen in any FBN show. Currently, Schlaefer hires a variety of singers, mostly in their 20s and 30s and based in South Carolina, on a per-show basis. Each holds a master’s degree. All are paid "the national norm." Besides performing with FBN Productions, they travel around the world appearing in a variety of shows.

"My goal is to not be able to afford them in five years," Schlaefer deadpans after a recent rehearsal. Indeed, some of her earlier performers have moved on to the New York City Opera, the U.S. Army’s Singing Sergeants and Juilliard. Current members teach voice at nearby colleges and are ministers of music at churches. Schlaefer supports herself as a freelance director of opera and plays across the country—most notably as production stage manager four months a year with The Santa Fe Opera. "See that white Tahoe over there? That’s what I live in," she jokes.

FBN stands for "Fly By Night," a moniker Schlaefer chose to reflect her company’s ability to move in, set up, put on a show and leave. Since it was formed five years ago, the nonprofit, 501(c)(3) corporation has entertained more than 35,000 school children and seniors. It averages 40 performances a year in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia. Schlaefer’s goals: to reach 100,000 people by the end of 2000, and to perform 300 times a year.

Those aren’t her only goals, though. Right now Schlaefer is trying to produce "Brundibar" in South Carolina. Written in 1937 Prague by Jewish composer Hans Krasa, "Brundibar" is the tale of two children who sing in the streets for money to buy milk for their sick mother. After their money is stolen by an adult street performer, a group of schoolchildren chase him down and get the money back.

"Brundibar," which means "bumblebee," was performed 87 times in the Terezin concentration camp during World War II. Although Krasa was executed, his opera—written to be performed by children—was resurrected with the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust. Schlaefer directed "Brundibar" last year for Tulsa Opera, with 250 children from 50 different schools. From ages 5–18, they performed onstage, worked backstage and played in the orchestra. She calls it "an incredible experience" she’d like to replicate here.

"We had kids from different walks of life—Native Americans, African-Americans—and they walked in very suspicious of each other and suspicious of the process," she recalls, theorizing that theater, unlike athletics, teaches teamwork in a non-competitive way. "It was a question of pulling together and getting the curtain to go up on time."

With its message of tolerance and standing up to tyranny, "Brundibar" is relevant for everyone, not just Jews, Schlaefer believes. In Tulsa, a board member who survived the Holocaust spoke to the children. The students also read poems by concentration camp children and sang songs in Yiddish.

"Quite frankly, I have to have $125,000 to do this, which sounds like a great deal of money, but it isn’t," she says. "I want them to have a multifaceted experience, including costumes, makeup, lights, orchestra and a space to do it in." She figures it will be a year and a half before "Brundibar" is staged. Unlike most outreach opera companies in the United States, FBN Productions doesn’t have a professional support organization—a fact that doesn’t seem to deter the plain-spoken Schlaefer. "I’d very much like to coordinate it with teachers in the midlands. I mean, it’s a dream. I have lots of dreams."

Ellen Schlaefer doesn’t mind working to make those dreams reality. After undergraduate work at Davidson College, she earned an MFA in directing from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Upon graduation, she became a prop shopper for the Washington Opera. That was 1980. By 1994, she had worked with Domingo and Pavarotti and was directing "Faust," the WO’s season opener. Now that she’s back home, she spends time raising money for FBN Productions and planning and directing its shows. Teachers and arts educators are thrilled.

"It’s especially important that a professional company like Ellen’s is on the road and traveling," says Frankie Bush, executive director of the Black Creek Arts Council in Darlington County. "We are so rural that if we didn’t have people like Ellen Schlaefer, our students would miss artistic opportunities."

FBN performed "The Three Little Pigs" for 4,000 students in Darlington County last year, Bush reports. "They absolutely loved it. They sat on the edge of their seats, much to the teachers’ chagrin, and enjoyed every minute."

Later, teachers discovered the performance offered more educational opportunities than they realized. They used the occasion to teach audience manners, and students got to watch translators perform the script for hearing-impaired students.

Schlaefer remembers one fourth grader from Newberry who announced, "I ain’t never seen no opry." After the show, that child—and others—were more positive. "They came up to me and said, ‘This was fun. That was coooool!’ "

For more information about FBN Productions, a performance schedule or to make a donation, contact: Ellen Douglas Schlaefer, General Director, 716 Old Forge Road, Chapin, SC 29036; phone (803) 345-6638, (888) 432-65437; e-mail


* A grant from the South Carolina Arts Commission, which receives support from the National Endowment for the Arts

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