What's Opera, Kid?
Culture appreciation for juniors.
Taking preschoolers to a full-length opera, in Italian no less, is a recipe for misery—unless, says Cyndie Bellen-Berthézène, the little ones learn the music and story beforehand in a playful environment. And season after season for the past eight years, she’s been proving her theory through Hi Art!, her series of classes that combine classical music, movement, and fine art, culminating in a live, professional performance, often at Lincoln Center. In August, a new series begins with a little-known Rossini opera, Il Viaggio à Reims, the story of a comical commingling of international guests on their way to a king’s coronation. Kids ages 2 to 12 will spend the morning listening to small doses of the opera and create their own interpretations. Field trips to art galleries are included in the program. When the preschoolers leave at noon, the big kids at Hi Art!’s Chelsea studio embark on a large-scale project related to the opera, be it a giant sculpture, building model stage sets, or designing period costumes. (For inspiration, Bellen-Berthézène lines the white walls of the studio with the works of grown-up artists in need of exposure.) Come September, participants will go to a matinee of Il Viaggio at the New York City Opera, where they’ll also get a backstage tour. “Nothing is dumbed down here,” she says. “We don’t abridge, we don’t make baby versions of things at all.” But is this pushing kids into something they aren’t ready for? “We are simply allowing kids to do something of a very high quality with the pleasure that they would learn to do everything else. There’s no pressure to become an expert in opera. But after this, you can take your 2-year-old to an opera.” – from New York Magazine, “Kids,” Susan Avery, Editor. July 27, 2005

It's High Time
If you haven't heard about Hi Art!, it's time you got with the program.  One of the most innovative culture programs in the  city, Hi Art! starts with toddlers and opens them up to the worlds of opera, classical music, fine art, and dance.  Parents continue to be amazed at what the peewees can absorb.  This semester's focus is on Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges and the artwork of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.  – from New York Magazine, “Kids,” Susan Avery, Editor. January 10, 2005

Best Childrens' Art Class,
New York Magazine

On a beautiful recent Saturday morning, Sean Sutton was meandering through the galleries of the “Painters in Paris” exhibition at the Met. Settling down in front of a Picasso, he took out his well-worn sketch pad and newly sharpened pencils and went to work. On his daddy's lap: Sean is 2. He's enrolled in an extraordinary class on the visual and performing arts for kids called Hi Art!... On that particular Saturday, the students (and their parents) were sent looking for things related to the opera they'd been studying, Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, including the boy's broken toys in Juan Gris' 1913 Violin and Playing Cards...“They end up with a sense of art as ongoing.” Bellen-Berthézène adds, “This is an anti arts-and-crafts program.”. — From “The Best of New York,”New York Magazine

Each week, Ms. Bellen-Berthézène explores what she calls the “primary sources” of art, dance and music with youngsters from about 2 years old on up. Sometimes they go to museums to sketch; sometimes they go to studios in midtown, to listen to music like Benjamin Britten's "Midsummer Night's Dream" and learn the stories behind it. ...Mothers too participate in the sessions, among them Elizabeth Page [a playwright] and her daughter, Zoë, 6 ...[B]oth women agree that children can benefit from early exposure to the arts — not watered-down children’s versions, but “the real thing.” ... Zoë ...has established a real rapport with Ms. Bellen-Berthézène, whom she describes as being “different from a regular teacher.” “She's not so firm,” Zoë said, “and she doesn't get mad if you do something silly.” On a recent afternoon, Zoë, Ms. Bellen Berthézène and Ms. Page cartwheeled across a room in a midtown performing-arts studio, waving colored bits of fabric, pretending to be the paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas... They bumped into the walls and into one another and, at one point, Zoë clambered all over Ms. Bellen-Berthézène as she lay on the floor. They both laughed. “She's a special person,”Ms. Bellen-Berthézène said of her student. “She is, too,” Zoë said, and bestowed the ultimate compliment. “You know, she acts sort of more like a kid than a grown-up.” — From “Getting a Kick Out of the Arts” by Bernard Stamler, The New York Times

Fast becoming one of the most talked about art programs in the city, Hi Art! continues speeding savvy New York children towards ever-greater heights of creativity... Fondly regarded by its director as “an introduction to high art aesthetics for young children,” the very hands-on program alternates between studio and museum-time. One week, children comb the city’s most prestigious museums and galleries; the next week music, dancing and glue are their vehicles for an intensive introduction to a masterpiece of classical music or opera. “My goal is to help children move away from the limitation of immediate gratification and move toward sustained activity and interest,” says Bellen-Berthezene. “We have great fun in class, yet there’s always a theoretical platform; real learning skills are being honed and the classes are challenging without being overwhelming.” The program’s philosophy and format gives children an opportunity to develop real competence in the arts while gaining confidence as people who listen, see, understand and appreciate. — From Big Apple Parent: “Pint-Sized Aesthetes” October 1999

“Only in New York,” he was overheard whispering, as he and his wife made their way through the Rothko show at the Whitney, “can you find a two-year old sitting and drawing Rothko.” Unbeknownst to him, however, the “two-year old” was really a twenty month old and she was not alone, but accompanied by a small group of three, four and five year olds, all assiduously at work attempting to reproduce their favorite Rothko paintings. Opera singer Cyndie Bellen-Berthézène, founder and director of HI ART! — an unusual workshop, which offers young children an “introduction to high art aesthetics,” — smiles broadly. “People at the Whitney show were completely amazed by our children. In one hour I was approached by four people, including two psychologists and the friend of a well-known Latin American sculptor. They can’t believe their eyes. Adults can be very unimaginative about children's capabilities. Children love art — in all of its forms — it's a matter of how it's presented to them. The program incorporates both museum and studio time. I always try to give children the big aesthetic concepts without in any way imposing on their native perceptions. Our work together hovers in the space between the fantasies of childhood and the facts of artistic production. Children come away from the HI ART! experience happy and feeling very grown-up. Working with children in the arts isn’t about an academic agenda — they have a whole lifetime ahead of them for that. It's about helping them find the link between who they are at this very moment and the voice of humanity in its embodiment in art.”