by Carole Verona
As part of their homeschooling, Cedarbrook residents Julia and Martha Finegan, ages 13 and 12, respectively, along with their six younger siblings all learned how to sing. “We can’t afford a lot of lessons with all of these kids, but I was classically trained in piano and voice, so I thought I could pass it along,” said their mother, Clare. Their father, Bill, is a lieutenant with the Philadelphia Fire Department, stationed at 21st & Market streets in Center City. The couple’s oldest daughter Sophia, now 23, lives and works in Washington, D.C.
It was through a homeschool network that Clare learned about International Opera Theater, a non-profit organization based both in Philadelphia and Italy. Founded in 2003 by Karen Saillant, artistic director, the company has presented works throughout Italy and here at home at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rosenbach Museum, Ibrahim Theater, Gershman Hall, Prince Music Theater, Verizon Hall and Academy of Music.
On July 30, Julia and Martha will fly to Italy, accompanied by Sophia, to sing in two International Opera Theater (IOT) productions. The first, which will take place during the Festival of Sacred Music in Assisi, is based on the writings of Hildegard Von Bingen, a 12th century German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher and mystic.
The second piece, an opera with chamber orchestra, is based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with music composed by award-winning Filipino film music composer Von De Guzman with libretto by Italian Maestro Antonio Fava. In it, the Finegan sisters will portray fairies and will be singing with professional opera singers from around the world.
“We’ll be singing in Italian and Latin,” said Julia. “We’ll memorize the Latin, and we’ve been studying Italian using Duolingo (a free online language learning program).”
“Quite a few homeschool kids participate with IOT because it fits easily into their schedules,” said Clare. “That’s how we got to know Karen Saillant very well. Now, she sends us invitations to audition.”
“About six years ago, we were in a production of a children’s opera called Brundibár,” Julia said. The production, directed by Karen Saillant, was written by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása and was originally performed during World War II by the children of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia.
Julia, who plays guitar and piano, started singing around the house with her mother at a very early age. She also began composing music when she was about seven years old. Martha took guitar lessons for a while and is also interested in jiu-jitsu. “Julia and Martha have different gifts, and they complement each other beautifully,” Bill said.
Clare and Bill set up a GoFundMe page to raise $10,000 for airfare, participation in the program, room and board for a month, passports and other expenses. Since March 21 of this year, they raised $6,515 toward their goal. They also held a beer and beef night, attended by 60 friends and supporters, at The Fire at 412 W. Girard Avenue in Fishtown.
How do Julia and Martha feel about all of this? “I’m so excited. It’s going to be insane,” Julia said. “It will be great to learn more about music from working with Karen six days a week, eight hours a day, for an entire month.”
Martha is also looking forward to spending so much time with Karen and to performing in such a beautiful Italian theater. “It sounds like a magical experience,” she said.
Clare is, of course, extremely proud of her daughters. “I didn’t expect them to be doing this while they’re so young. That was kind of a surprise. I’m expecting the next baby two days after they leave. So I told them, ‘If you can’t do something every time I’m going to have a baby, then you’ll never get to do anything! So just go for it.’ What an incredible opportunity.”
When the girls return to the United States, they’ll head down to perform at the Appalachian Music Festival in Front Royal, Virginia. Along with their cousin, Isabella Wallacavage, they will be performing music with a folk, bluegrass, Irish vibe, including a few of the songs that Julia wrote.