Cuteness Overload: Miami Summer Music Festival Opens with a Family Hit

And sometimes opera isn’t even operatic… it’s just adorable.

We’ve heard a lot of hype about the Miami Summer Music Festival recently, which opened this week and already held two recitals at the Betsy Hotel in SoBe. The brainchild of Washington National Opera conductor Michael Rossi, the Festival attracts young pre-professional and emerging musicians from all over the world to gain experience performing at the intensity level of professional companies, but with instruction and masterclasses to polish its performers. It held its inaugural run last year and was well received in its endeavor to mount three fully-staged operas and multiple orchestral concerts in a four-week period. This year, to raise the stakes, the Festival is programming four fully-staged operas. In four weeks.

The ambitious programming, however, has been clever. The Festival opened the incredibly family-friendly children’s opera Hansel and Gretel last night (instrument petting zoo… ‘nuff said), but will also put up the more mature-themed Albert Herring by Britten next week, and then the French fairytale Cendrillon (Massenet) and the sexy Don Giovanni (Mozart) the week after. These operas all range in themes, musical styles, and targeted audiences, meaning there will ultimately be something for everyone to enjoy.

Last night was for the kids and it was, as we mentioned before, ADORABLE.

The festival is grooming the next generation of opera lovers by offering an outreach component with a children’s production. To kick off the evening, members of the orchestra waited outside the venue with a range of instruments – horns, strings, plenty of percussion – and invited families with young children to come try them out. The musicians were quickly swamped with little ones jumping at a chance to bang on the snare or channel their inner Satchmo on the trumpet sans inhibition. The lobby was filled with the clamoring, inharmonious noise of children getting to test drive instruments they might later want to study in without the pressures of potentially getting it wrong.

When everyone was finally corralled for the start of the show, founder Rossi turned to the audience and asked for a volunteer. Hands went up like lightning bolts, and a 6-year old girl beat out the rest to join him at the conductor’s podium. “Have you ever conducted an orchestra before?” he asked his young guinea pig. Under his tutelage, she made her debut with clear sense of rhythm and natural precociousness – the first great performance of the night.

Next up to bat was Maestro Yuriy Bekker of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, who conducted the performance with warmth. A children’s opera, Hansel and Gretel, by Engelbert Humperdinck, is usually sung in German, but was performed in English for this run – another smart move to increase accessibility with families. It opens with the siblings bored and hungry, attempting to drudge through their chores. Here Jooyeon Song shone as a believably gangly and boyish Hansel in both her acting and interpretation, harnessing the elegance of her mezzo-soprano timbre to betray her character’s quick-changing emotions.

The children ultimately upset their mother and are sent into the woods to pick strawberries where they dawdle until night falls, setting them up for their adventure. The sandman, played by Kara Smoot, entices the children into a deep sleep, but before they fall under her spell, both remember to say their prayers in the beautiful duet, “When at Night I Go to Sleep.” Latini’s clarity and Song’s warmth, buoyed by a chorus of fourteen angels, was a touching and serene moment in an otherwise boisterous story.

The cast hit its stride during the scenes at the Gingerbread House, where it’s likely everyone in the audience wanted to warn Hansel and Gretel of the danger to come. The witch, sung by Melissa Tegeler, was just endearing and warm enough to make a family-friendly villain, and Latini and Song played off of each other’s emotions as real siblings might, working together to outsmart the witch and save the day. The opera has a refreshing ending, wherein the children save themselves, and the two leads bubbled over with energy in their final scenes, reunited with their parents.

Effective, charming, and perfectly targeted to its audience of children ages 5-15 and their families, the MSMF’s opening opera was a delightful experience to partake in. If we can expect the same level of polish and enthusiasm from the Festival’s participants in their upcoming productions, Miamians will be in for a treat.

At time of publication, Hansel and Gretel is enjoying an encore matinee performance with a different cast at Barry University’s Broad Theater.

For more information about the Miami Summer Music Festival’s other upcoming productions, visit www.miamisummermusicfestival.com .

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