Western Oregon University music professor Kevin Helppie gives some direction to the cast of “animals” at a rehearsal of “Noye’s Fludde” in Salem on Jan. 5. // Photos by Pete Strong
Tuning violins, cellos and a piano create an ominous cloud of sound as Kevin Helppie steps onto the podium at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Salem. Clad in blue jeans and a Seattle Seahawks T-shirt, Helppie cracks a joke to ease any tension for his singers.
“I feel like Shaquille O’Neal up here,” he said.
His wife, Mary Ruth, sits down to an organ accompanying the Western Oregon University orchestra. A low and deep melody resonates from wall to wall, filling the ear with a pleasant surprise. Ike Nail, winner of two Grammy awards and the maestro for this piece, enthusiastically gesticulates to the tempo while 32 children from Canby, Marion and Polk counties file in with animal costumes atop their heads. Cows, piranhas, badgers, giraffes, bunnies and various other animals make parents and bystanders “awww.”
Helppie, a music professor at Western Oregon University, is directing a version of Benjamin Britten’s classic opera “Noye’s Fludde” — Noah’s Flood. His performers for the prestigious work? A contingent of WOU singers, musicians and faculty — and, of course, the kids.
Working primarily with musicals, classical concert music and jazz on a regional to international level, Helppie said opera holds a special place for him. He and his students stage a production annually and decided to include children “to promote a lifetime love of music and singing.”
“Noye’s Fludde” was not meant to be performed by amateurs and offered “a wonderful chance for community outreach and an educational opportunity for youngsters,” he said.
Still, Helppie took his best students from WOU and the elementary schools.
“The harmony and sounds of the orchestra are very complex,” he said. “And the youngsters have tackled the challenge with great enthusiasm.”
Don’t be fooled by the age range; “The music for the show was not made easy for the kids,” he said.
Helppie said the production is the first exposure to opera for many of the children.
“They’ll remember it in a positive way for the rest of their lives,” he said.
Staging “Noye’s Fludde,” funded through WOU student fees, has been much like the story of Noah’s Flood itself, said Mary Ruth Helppie, a music teacher at Trost Elementary School in Canby.
“We started and we had all these great ideas and then we didn’t have enough kids and we didn’t have enough singers to play the main parts,” she said.
“We were pulling our hair, and then we kept thinking this opera is going to be just like Noah’s Flood, where the idea comes, the building of it comes and then the animals start coming.
“Things have just been falling into place. We’re really excited about it.”
Tess Hossart, 11, a student at Trost, said she enjoyed performing in an opera at such a young age.
“My favorite part about the opera is getting to sing with a whole bunch of other people and having fun,” she said.
Her older castmate, Cheeka Vang, a senior music major at WOU, shared that sentiment.
“I decided to participate because I thought it’d be a good chance to experience this genre of music and because it’s just really fun,” Vang said.
Eric Stearns, a WOU senior and music major, said Helppie is committed to his craft.
“He’s a joy to work with. He loves this opera, he loves these kids. He loves the people involved and wants to make this an enjoyable experience for everyone, including the audience,” he said.