Noah Mond moves across the stage at the Nashville Zoo, hitting high notes in the children’s opera, Monkey and Francine in the City of Tigers, while dancing in a colorful costume and cat mask in front of a crowd of captivated kids.
In the background, real monkeys in zoo habitats chime in with their own sounds in the distance. It’s not your typical concert venue. And that’s the point.
Mond, a bass-baritone classical and jazz vocalist majoring in voice performance at Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music, joined classmates and performers Hannah Mikita, Jordan Haas and Lucy Calaway recently for a special engagement at the zoo to perform the opera by Indian-American composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist David Johnston.
The event, held earlier this spring, is emblematic of a larger mission for the Blair School under the leadership of Dean Lorenzo F. Candelaria, who sees opportunities to revolutionize the experience of classical music in ways that cultivate new and diverse audiences for the art form. In some cases, it means taking the music out to unexpected places.
The visit to the zoo is the latest in a series of community performances. Recently, Vanderbilt Opera Theatre performed at the Casa Azafrán community center and the Parthenon at Centennial Park. Meanwhile, other Blair School events are scheduled off campus in the months ahead, all with the goal of fostering stronger ties in the community through music.
“The mission of the Blair School can be summarized in just a few words. It is to transform our world one community at a time—through the arts, with the arts, in the arts,” Candelaria said.
“Nothing we do here is merely an initiative,” he added. “Everything is about discovering what is authentic in a community and embracing those things on their own terms. Opera is a wonderful experience if it’s not presented as something you should ‘like for your own good.’ It’s so much better to experience the art form as a community in ways that are relatable and, above all, fun.”
During the two Sunday performances at the Nashville Zoo, the children in the audience laughed and clapped as the musicians covered a range of songs. Fusing stories and music from India, China and West Africa, Monkey and Francine follows a brother and sister as they learn to work together to escape a hungry crocodile and outwit the greedy Lord of the Tigers.
The group of Blair students auditioned and practiced for weeks leading up to the zoo performances. But, outside of the chance to share their musical gifts with an audience at a venue far different than a typical performance hall, each of the students views the opportunity as something more: an introduction to a type of music they’ve grown to love after finding it.
“It’s really exciting to see the kids be so excited about opera. You think of it as something that’s kind of a dying art. It’s so cool to see young people watch something and be so into it,” said Haas, who played the role of Monkey in the performance and is studying music education.
The student performers noted that the debut of this particular opera occurred in 2017, allowing for a modern take on a centuries-old art form—and making it more accessible to an audience who otherwise might have taken a pass on the experience.
“Opera has a reputation of being really stuffy, and inaccessible, and elitist,” said Mikita, who sang the part of the monkey queen and Lord Tiger. “I think this production really changes that idea. At its core, opera is storytelling. And that’s what we do.”
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