The stars of the Children’s Opera Box are, from left, Martin Dantagnan, Alexia Rufino, Claire Robinson and Ruthie Rick. (Courtesy of John Sturgis Photography)

by Sue Ann Rybak

If you asked 11-year old Ariana Cabrera to describe operatic music before she participated in Children’s Opera Box, she would have replied, “A fat lady wearing a horn hat singing really loud.” But thanks to Paula Rivera-Dantagnan and the other members of the Children’s Opera Box, her perceptions about opera have changed.

“But now I know that opera is a talent, and anybody can do it,” said Cabrera, a student at Tabor Youth Development Center who is one of the many children singing the role of the royal messengers in “Cinderella: A Fairy Tale Opera” this weekend at the Cunningham Piano Company in Germantown.

Rivera-Dantagnan, the founder of Children’s Opera Box and voice teacher, said the idea for Opera Box came from observing her own children, who have been listening to opera all their lives.

“For them, opera was so much fun,” said Rivera-Dantagnan, who is a core alto with the Opera Company of Philadelphia chorus and The Philadelphia Singers. “I would play it, and they would act it out and ask me what is happening now? They loved dressing up and singing.”

She said her students’ reaction to opera music was altogether different. Her students never heard opera music before and thought it was dreadfully boring. “Opera music was something so detached from them,” said Rivera-Dantagnan, who grew up listening to her parents play opera in Chile. “It really made me sad because I felt that they were missing out on something that was fun. As an opera singer and music educator myself, I felt it was my responsibility to create a bridge between big theaters and children in the city who would otherwise not have a chance to experience opera.”

She said the concept behind the Opera Box is that opera can travel anywhere. The Opera Box includes all types of props, costumes and gadgets necessary to bring a complete opera to life. But not only does Children’s Opera Box perform for children, they perform WITH children. Noel Graves-Williams, who play Clorinda, Cinderella’s stepsister, said opera has something for everyone. “Opera is the ultimate collaborative art form,” said Graves-Williams, who also performs in the chorus of the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

She said for those kids who would prefer not to be on stage, the program allows kids the opportunity to participate in the production in other ways. It provides an outlet for them to exercise their talents and work together as a group. “They are just as proud of themselves as the kids on the stage,” said Graves-Williams, whose performance in “The Magic Flute” has been called “legendary.”

Joanna Gates, a mezzo-soprano who plays Cinderella, said the program allows the organization to “not only expose young kids to the opera but to their parents. If you asked most parents if they wanted to attend the opera, they would probably say no. But if your kid’s in it, that’s different.”

Rivera-Dantagnan added that without programs like Children’s Opera Box many children would never be exposed to opera. “They [children and teenagers] are so invaded by pop culture,” she said. “I am not going to judge, but it’s not even on their radar. It’s our responsibility to put it on their radar.”

She said one of the most important things Children’s Opera Box does is break the stereotypes associated with opera. She said children often describe opera as a fat lady wearing a hat with horns singing really loud. “They are always amazed when I tell them opera singers are all different,” Rivera-Dantagnan said. “Many of the children have never experienced an unamplified voice before … I teach them how to sing, how to breath, posture and how to act. It’s always amazing to see how much the kids love it.”

Rivera-Dantagnan loves seeing the way opera transforms the students. She recalled how one little girl who was very shy began singing a difficult aria. “In the last scene, Cinderella sings an aria. It’s very hard with a lot of scales. The children sing a little bit in the background, so I was singing it, so they would know when to come in. After practice, she came to me and began singing all the runs.”

Rivera-Dantagnan said this little girl has so much talent, and it frustrates her that this little girl may never reach her full potential. “You can’t just say you should take voice lessons, because she is not going to be able to take voice lessons. That’s when I always feel like I have to do more. In Philadelphia, there are so many schools where there is no music teacher.”

Since its creation in 2011, Children’s Opera Box has worked with schools and community organizations such as Tabor Youth Development Center to bring the joy of opera to children throughout the Greater Philadelphia area. Children’s Opera Box is working with children like Eliana Rodriguez, who is 10, to change their image of opera and transform their lives. “Here, opera is for anybody who wants to join, and it’s something that anybody can do,” Rodriguez said.

As part of the Fringe Arts Festival, Children’s Opera Box and students from Tabor Youth Development Center will be performing “A Fairy Tale Opera” on Sept. 7, 6:30 p.m., and Sept. 8, 3 p.m., at the Cunningham Piano Company, 5427 Germantown Ave.

For more information, call 218-422-6269 or go to www.childrensoperabox.com and click on Tickets to Cinderella.