They sit in rapt attention, 30 or so schoolchildren, ranging in age from 7-12. It is a mark of how tuned-in they are that at 4:30 in the afternoon, after a full day of school, they still present their “shining morning face[s]” to Sophia Miller. Miller is the assistant conductor of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, from whose choristers this group is drawn.
The engagingly attentive choir is mustering its surprising powers of concentration for a workshop performance of a new 50-minute work, “Miracle! New Hanukkah Opera for Children,” on Dec. 18 at the JCC in Manhattan. With less than two weeks to go to the performance, the kids seem to have things completely under control.
The inspiration for the piece, says composer Victoria Bond, was simple.
Every year she conducts a performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” for Chamber Opera Chicago. That Christmas-themed opera for children has always struck Bond as hitting just the right note for its young audience.
“Children really get it,” Susan L. Roth, her librettist, says. “It doesn’t talk down to them.”
Bond, whose grandfather Samuel Epstein was the double-bassist for the Chicago Symphony and wrote Jewish liturgical music, wanted to create a similar piece for the concurrent Jewish holiday, a short work that could eventually be paired with the Menotti, “a piece that would be about the things that Chanukah celebrates.”
The result, she says, “is not only for Jewish audiences.
“The issues that the holiday and the opera raise are universal,” Bond says. “The opera is about kids who don’t listen to each other. Then they grow up to be adults … But at the end of the piece they are starting to listen to each other at least a bit.”
The process of creating the performance started with precisely that theme in mind, as Sophia Miller explains.
“We talked about Chanukah with the children, and asked the Jewish children to tell stories about their own celebration, then all the kids started to exchange stories: ‘Oh, do you do this?’ ‘What’s that like?’ It is so important for them to understand each other, for them to hear another child tell what she does. That’s an important part of our mission as a chorus.”
From its inception, the organization was conceived as a group that would cut across all ethnic, religious and socioeconomic lines
The YPC was founded “23 years ago,” announces Adam Rudt, 8, enthusiastically. Rudt, who has “been singing since I was 3,” is a quick to point out a major milestone for the chorus.
“Francisco [J. Nuñez], who founded the chorus, won a MacArthur award,” he says proudly. “We go everywhere. The big guys go out on trips. We perform at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and we work with all different people.”
“Miracle” was the result of a commission from the YPC. In one respect it was a bit of a departure.
“Most of our commissions are for the older children,” Miller says. “We explained to this group what a commission means, and they were very enthusiastic.”
“[The YPC’s] commitment to living composers is so admirable,” Bond says. “It gets the kids thinking that music is a living art.”
With the composer and librettist right there in front of them, talking about changes in the score with the accompanist and the conductor, the children couldn’t imagine otherwise.
Does that organic process of collaboration present problems when the largest group of collaborators is less than 15 years old?
“If we were making changes the day before . . . but this is more than a week before performance,” Bond says.
“I’ll tell them ‘Let me try something,’” Miller says. “That’s my way of saying ‘Don’t marry it yet.’”
Roth puts her finger on one of the key elements in making that process work.
“Sophia’s patience is extraordinary,” she says. “She listens to what they need and analyzes the difference [from what is on the page].”
She also has a sense of playfulness that keeps the youngsters involved as the length of their day begins to take its toll on their otherwise admirable focus.
At one point in the rehearsal, Miller tries to elicit more energy from the young lady who sings the role of the family’s food-crazy dog.
“You’re like the most excited puppy there ever was,” Miller bubbles.
And the “puppy” effervesces with her.
After the rehearsal, Miller says, “It is the end of a long day. Maybe they’re hungry or tired. But I find that with children — and I don’t think age matters — if you set the bar, they will rise.”
“Miracle! New Hanukkah Opera for Children” will have a workshop performance on Sunday, Dec. 18 at the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Ave.) at 3 p.m. For information, call (212) 289-7779, ext. 10. For more information on the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, go to www.ypc.org.