Local kids lend voices to opera — in Italian

The opera “Mese Mariano” tells the story of a mother who longs to be reunited with her young son. It is being performed at the Sottile Theatre.

Grace Beahm

In early February, more than two dozen area youngsters auditioned for a children’s chorus. They arrived with nursery rhymes, patriotic songs and familiar numbers from “Shrek” and Disney movies.

Less than four months later, 13 of them are performing a little-known Giordano opera score. In Italian. At the Spoleto Festival USA.

“Learning the songs was the hardest part,” said Julian Ford, 9, one of the boys who plays Valentino, the solo child part in “Mese Mariano.”

“Remembering what to say was really, really hard,” agreed 10-year-old Davis Varnado, who also plays Valentino on alternate nights. The role requires the boys to recite lengthy lines as well as perform solos.

Amanda Castellone was in charge of preparing the boys and the other 11 children once rehearsals began in mid-March. “I started by just teaching them the notes and the rhythms on ‘la,’ and then went back and would teach them a little Italian at a time,” she said.

“I wrote in the translations of what it all meant, but it just turned into them repeating the words after me and not necessarily knowing what they meant,” Castellone said. “They learned it really well, actually. They learned not to breathe in the middle of a word, to accent the right syllable.”

“Mese Mariano,” which is paired with another short opera, Puccini’s “Le Villi,” tells the story of a mother who longs to be reunited with her young son and the challenges she faces to reach him.

The children rehearsed once a week for 90 minutes with Castellone. “We played lots of games,” she said in describing the rehearsals. “I never wanted them to be bored or resent being here, so I tried to keep it very fun and entertaining.”

The chorus also features two sisters, Simone and Natasha Kavarana. “I really liked being in the opera,” said Simone Kavarana, 11. “I got to meet new kids and I had to watch out for my little sister.”

“I had fun,” said her sister Natasha, 6. “I really like singing.”

Christina Riley is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.