It's not unusual for high school students performing in stage productions to re-enact the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet" or belt out a few numbers by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
The Long Leaf Opera Company and The ArtsCenter are collaborating to present an original opera called "Three, Two, One, Bang!" featuring an all-teen cast. The show, adapted from Shakespeare's "Macbeth," will be staged at The ArtsCenter tonight and Thursday as part of the annual Long Leaf Opera Festival. The festival features performances of a number of operas through June (see box, page B4).
Teens from throughout the Triangle will perform in the 30-minute, English-language "Three, Two, One, Bang!" A rising sophomore at the Carolina Friends School in Durham portrays Macbeth. One of the three witches, or "sisters," is a rising sophomore at Chapel Hill High School. Lady Macbeth is played by a young woman who recently graduated from Jordan High School in Durham. And the young man who plays Macduff is from Enloe High School in Raleigh.
Justine F. Chen, who lives in the Upper West Side in New York City and is a composer-in-residence for Long Leaf Opera, wrote the opera.
Teenagers and adults tend to know "Macbeth" because it's often required reading in high school or college literature courses.
In Chen's version, the action takes place in a carnival setting. And instead of striving to be the king of Scotland, Macbeth struggles to find enough money for him and his family to live a comfortable life, Chen said.
"It would be interesting for those kids who know 'Macbeth' to see a different adaptation of it," she said. "And for those who don't know it, it would be an interesting way for them to come to know 'Macbeth' and to see it through my eyes first."
Also, the adaptation condenses a lengthy Shakespeare play into half an hour.
"There's a real feel to being able to condense your message," said Chen, who welcomed the challenge. "I think it's more potent for a theatrical piece, to present it in a very short and sharp way."
Joseph Bishop, a 15-year-old rising sophomore at the Carolina Friends School who has been singing opera since he was 10 years old, plays Macbeth. He said he appreciates that everything --emotions, gestures, plots -- tend to be exaggerated in operas.
He performed in Long Leaf's production of Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" a few years ago.
"I think one of the great things about this opera is when Macbeth starts to lose it," Bishop said. "There's such an emotional range that I get to play in a short time, so it seems like a lot of fun to try and do."
The self-described introvert said he also likes that in spite of the changes Chen made to the original play, the script still incorporates much of what drives "Macbeth."
"The tragedy is a lot of fun to portray," Bishop added. "I enjoy looking at how values and morals are so fragile, and how once that is torn from someone, so [is] their personality and identity."
Taylor Madill, who graduated from Jordan High School just last weekend, plays Lady Macbeth. She will be going to study at Converse College's Petrie School of Music in Spartanburg, S.C., this fall. She said she wants to study opera and the classics in college and then pursue an opera career.
Madill, 18, portrayed Maria in her school's production of "The Sound of Music," one of her favorite musicals, and she has been a chorus member in Handel's "Messiah" with the North Carolina Symphony.
This is her first operatic performance.
"I fell in love with opera listening to WCPE [89.7 FM], and I was studying arias on my own," she said.
She said she wants to earn a master's degree in vocal performance and then to move to Europe to build her career.
"You gotta shoot for the stars, right?" she said. "It's just so dramatic. A lot of Americans don't realize that there's so much passion in it that's missing from American theater or even musicals. There's this perception of snootiness in opera, but it's such a magical thing -- it's just not in English!"
Nora Burgard, a rising sophomore at Chapel Hill High, plays one of the three witches, or "sisters," as they're called in this adaptation.
Burgard will play Marian Paroo in "The Music Man" in PlayMaker's Repertory Company this summer, as part of the Summer Youth Conservatory program established by PlayMakers and The ArtsCenter.
She had sung in choir since she was 9 or 10, she said, and loves the flashiness and glamour of musicals.
"I never realized opera was so big -- everything about it," Burgard said. "You have to be so huge in everything you do ... your voice, your motions."
Chen said she was pleasantly surprised at how hard-working the teen cast was, and at its level of commitment. And she's proud that the group is bringing to life a contemporary opera.
"I'm so grateful for them lending their talents to this production," she said. "I was really surprised, during the course of these rehearsals, how exponentially they've improved. The changes were so stunning."
Madill said she feels blessed to have the opportunity to perform in an opera, and she's grateful that Long Leaf offers young people the chance to exerience a 400-year-old art form.
"The music [in operas] is so romantic, and you can't help but hum along with it," Madill said. "It speaks to my heart, at least, and I hope it does with other people as well."