North Cambridge Family Opera Company
Our Philosophy


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Our Mission

The North Cambridge Family Opera Company began as an informal group of children and adults who gathered to perform at the NoCa (North Cambridge) all arts open studios weekend in May 1999. We found the experience of singing opera to be a unique way to strengthen families, to build friendships, and to enhance relationships between generations.

Our mission is to provide children and adults the opportunity to experience and enjoy the telling of a story through song, by performing operas which are

Casts and crews consist of both children and adults, with participation by multiple family members encouraged. Both children and adults are cast in solo roles. Multiple casting ensures that anyone capable of singing a solo role is given an opportunity to do so. Roles of various difficulty are assigned based on the ability and experience of the singer, so that everyone is challenged, but no one is set up to fail. All shows include a chorus, so that less advanced singers also may participate.

To the extent possible, the productions are financed through donations and volunteerism. We seek to minimize fees on performers and admission so that financial considerations will not prevent families from participating in a production or attending a performance.

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Statement of Activities

The mission of Family Opera, Inc. is the production and promotion of opera performances for family audiences with casts consisting of both adults and children. In our opera productions, we encourage participation by multiple family members. We perform under the name of "North Cambridge Family Opera Company (NCFOC)."

Our specific activities include:

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What Is Opera?

Many people, when they hear the word "opera," immediately think of overweight singers in Viking costumes belting out arias in German. With such a Wagnerian prototype, many see themselves as turned off to operas because they believe them all to be long, pretentious, based on uninteresting stories, and sung in a foreign language by people with loud voices and too much vibrato.

Some operas are all these things, but an opera need not be any of them. "Jesus Christ, Superstar" and "Les Miserables" are also operas. Opera is simply the art of conveying a story though singing, acting and dancing, without any significant spoken dialog or narration. It is the absence of spoken book scenes which distinguishes operas from operettas and musicals, and while it may seem like a minor distinction, it dramatically changes the audience experience. In part, this is because the flow of the music is more continuous, but also because music takes much longer than spoken drama, and so the story unfolds in slow motion, pulling you to the edge of your seat for the duration of the show.

In musicals, the plot mostly unfolds efficiently through the spoken dialog. The songs are generally mere punctuation which can be omitted without loss to the story line, or for that matter, sung out of context without loss to the song. More happens in less time. A musical can be very effective and moving theater, but it is a very different experience from an opera, both to witness and to create.

(cartoon used with permission of Speed Bump artist Dave Coverly)

One of our missions at The North Cambridge Family Opera Company is to perform exclusively operas, rather than musicals or operettas. Showing children (and their parents) that operas can be exciting, musically accessible, based on interesting stories, and fun to sing and listen to will help to remove the stigma which is tied to anything called an "opera." Once minds have been so opened, they are then free to explore the enormous wealth of the world's 400 year operatic legacy, from Monteverdi to Mozart, from Puccini to Previn. Who knows, maybe they'll even start to like Wagner.

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When Is an Opera a "Family" Opera?

A "family opera" is written to be performed for an audience of adults and children, by a cast of adults and children whose talents and experience vary widely. The ideal family opera meets the following seven criteria.

  1. It is an opera, i.e., sung throughout with little or no spoken narration or dialog (see What Is Opera?).
  2. It is based on a story which both children and adults are likely to be interested in and/or already familiar with. Operas have always been a way of presenting an old and well known story in a new way, giving it a new life and perspective. Opera is much easier to follow when you already know what's going on (i.e., when it doesn't matter if you can't catch all of the words). One reason why 19th century operas seem so inaccessible to many people today is that they are often based on stories which were popular at the time, but have since fallen into obscurity.
  3. It is musically sophisticated enough to interest adults, while still accessible to children (see Musical Styles).
  4. It has many solo roles, ranging in difficulty from easy to hard, so that we can provide challenging but realizable solo assignments to participants of diverse experience and ability.
  5. It has solo roles for men, women, boys and girls, and perhaps some roles which can be played by either gender of any age (animals, aliens or androids, for example), allowing for more flexibility in casting.
  6. It contains a mixed chorus (i.e., treble to bass voices), for those who are too shy or inexperienced to take on a solo role.
  7. It is between 30 and 90 minutes long; about an hour is ideal.

It is surprising how few works meet these criteria. In the popular repertoire, there's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and not much else. In addition to composing our own works, we are continually looking for family operas which we can perform, as well as shows which come close to meeting the family opera criteria which we can adapt.

If you are a composer and have written or would like to write a family opera, or if you know of a work which meets or very nearly meets the seven criteria above, we'd love to hear from you. Also, if you would like to review the products of our research and composition efforts, we are happy to share anything from our library of family operas. (see How to contact us.)

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Who Can Be in Our Productions

The North Cambridge Family Opera Company welcomes community participation in our productions. We hold auditions prior to casting to evaluate each participant's vocal and movement abilities, so that we can provide challenging but realizable singing and dancing assignments for as many interested participants as we can accommodate.

Our casts and crews consist of both children and adults. We encourage multiple family members to participate. We also welcome adults without children, those with children too young to participate, and empty nesters who would like the experience of performing with children. If your children want to sing, but we can't convince you to sing with them, you can be in the crew or help in some other aspect of the production. However, we discourage parents from treating this as an after-school activity, dropping their kids off at rehearsal and just coming to watch the show. This is especially important with younger children, many of whom can master the music but are not emotionally ready to be in an opera without close parental supervision and participation. Of course, no one is too old.

Solo and chorus roles are assigned to both children and adults. Solo roles for each production are either double cast or triple cast (i.e., two or three singers are assigned to each solo role and alternate performances). This redundancy allows us to forego understudies (a frustrating and heartless assignment for a child, who must learn the role, but often never has the chance to perform it). Multiple casting also provides ample solo opportunities, so that most participants who are interested in and capable of singing a solo role can be given a chance to do so. Solo roles of various difficulty are assigned based on the range, ability and experience of the singer. There are also opportunities for dance solos, which are assigned based on dance experience and ability.

All shows include a chorus, which is not multiple cast and sings in every performance. The chorus provides a vehicle for less advanced and more bashful singers to participate comfortably, without solo assignments. Soloists in one cast are encouraged to be in the chorus when other casts are performing. Everyone sings, and everyone dances.

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Computer-Generated Instrumental Accompaniment

The North Cambridge Family Opera Company uses computers and electronic instruments (synthesizers and samplers) to create instrumental accompaniments for our operas. Samplers can be programmed to sound remarkably like the acoustic instruments for which the operas are scored. We write the instrumental score as a MIDI sequence, a list of commands from a computer which instruct a synthesizer or sampler exactly when and how to play each note (pitch, duration, volume, timbre, vibrato, etc.). After painstakingly editing the MIDI until the orchestration, phrasing, dynamics and tempi are just right, we then play the sequence using a Kurzweil sampler to produce very nearly lifelike audio, from which we burn CDs for our rehearsals and performances.

This approach has both advantages and disadvantages. The biggest disadvantage is that the singers must follow the "orchestra", rather than the other way around, so some spontaneity is lost. Also, as impressive as computers and software are these days, it is never possible to make a computer-generated orchestra sound quite as good as real professional players.

However, we believe that for an amateur, community-based group like ours, the disadvantages of computer-generated instrumental accompaniments are outweighed by the advantages, which include:

Flexibility - you can perform anywhere you can bring a CD player.

Simplicity - scheduling rehearsals for the singers is chaotic enough without having to worry about an orchestra or a rehearsal pianist.

Cost - professional instrumentalists add significantly to the cost of an operating production, and you can save on hall rental if you are not restricted to venues with a pit for the orchestra.

Versatility - in a single show, the cast can have the opportunity to perform against a wide range of accompaniment styles and orchestrations, ranging from jazz ensemble to rock band to symphony orchestra.

Reliability - a computer-generated orchestra never rushes, drags, or makes mistakes.

Sound Quality - it may not be the Boston Symphony, but a computer-generated orchestra will sound better than any live instrumentalists a group like ours actually will be able to find or afford.

Adaptability - by editing the MIDI, each number can be easily played in any key, at any tempo, and with any expression to accommodate the interpretation and vocal range of each individual performer.

Reproducibility - the computer-generated accompaniment is always the same, always just the way the composer envisioned it. Singers always know exactly what to expect from the invariant accompaniment (having rehearsed with it), and so do not find following a CD in performance to be difficult.

Transportability - once we've made an accompaniment CD for our production, little effort is required to adapt it for use by other small opera companies.

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Why We Use Microphones

The vocal techniques which are traditionally employed both in opera and in Broadway musicals evolved out of the necessity to be heard over an orchestra in a large hall. Many years ago, only those who could sing loud enough might become successful. Those who could also sing beautifully might become famous.

Alas, not everyone who would like to sing can generate more volume than an orchestra, and this is especially true with children. Children are often encouraged to sing louder by `belting' notes at the upper reaches of their chest voice, a practice which can result in damage to the vocal cords by young adulthood ("Annie Syndrome").

Fortunately, microphones have become so versatile and discreet that they can be used in almost any stage application without interfering with the performance. Traditional techniques for generating volume are no longer required. Now it is the beauty of the singing which needs be the primary concern.

The North Cambridge Family Opera Company uses tiny wireless clip-on microphones to amplify all soloists, so that singers can concentrate on making a beautiful sound and let the engineer worry about the volume. Children are instructed to let their voices float upward into their natural head voices on high notes, thus encouraging good vocal habits and protecting their voices from damage.

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Musical Styles

Many of us who were trained in classical music as children can recall being left with the impression that God had granted the ability to create great music only to 18th and 19th century Europeans (once we reached college, of course, the list was expanded to include the current faculty as well).

What rubbish! Every culture and every era has produced music of great expressiveness and beauty. We do our children (and ourselves) a great disservice if we instill in them a narrow musical perspective.

One mission of The North Cambridge Family Opera Company is to expose children and their parents to musical styles from many cultures and eras, and to present each of these styles with equal deference and respect. We teach that no musical style is inherently `better' than any other.

Our only criterion is that the music be accessible to children, yet sophisticated enough to hold the interest of adults as well. "Accessible to children" generally means lyrical and tonal, but it does not mean simplistic or condescending. Children's appreciation of music can extend far beyond Raffi if we give them the chance.

Our operas so far have drawn from baroque, classical, romantic, and 20th century classical traditions, from Middle Eastern modalities, and from jazz, blues, rock, honky-tonk, ragtime, and pop styles. We've done tarantellas, sea shanties, marches, minuets, ballads, Londonderry airs, tangos, even lounge music. And we've only just begun to scratch the surface of the panoply of the world's musical diversity.

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