Chuck Winkler and Kade Smith live and breathe opera, but they do have their differences. Winkler is a native Houstonian who loves to cook; Smith, an Okie, prefers baking cookies. Winkler was a boy soprano; Smith wanted to be a scientist but didn’t have the grades.
“I’m a morning person,” Winkler adds. “He’s not.” When collaborating on the children’s operas they help create for Houston Grand Opera’s Opera to Go!, they fuel up with vanilla vodka and Dr. Pepper. And, somehow, it all turns out all right.
“We have a great working relationship and we socialize together,” says Smith. But they aren’t partners in real life—both have boyfriends—even though they spend a lot of time together. They not only sing in HGO’s chorus, but Winkler is the director of HGOco, while Smith is the program director. And in their spare time they create 45-minute, high-energy kid operas from three-hour classics that tour the country introducing young people to the magic that is opera.
“Sure, it’s hard,” says the boyish Winkler, who at 46 resembles a cuter, younger Scott Baio, dressed sans tie in a corduroy jacket and jeans. “But we know what these kids want, you have to keep them laughing. A lot of what we do is based on cartoon humor.”
Smith, 30, who dresses more like a cool college professor but admits to being young at heart, adds that he “loves Square Bob Sponge Pants!”
But more than just an affinity for kiddie entertainment, it takes a great deal of talent and music aplomb to condense classics like Daughter of the Regiment into English-language performances that not only grab the attention of some 300 K-to-8th-grade students but, hopefully, impart an appreciation of the art as well.
“It’s just a great way of telling a story,” Winkler says of opera. “Every performance I introduce I try to compare it to sports. Opera is like the Olympics. It’s not just some person with a Viking hat on.”
Smith agrees. “The arts enrich our lives in ways other entertainment can’t. Sitting in front of the TV two hours a day doesn’t make me want to be a better person.”
But TV watching, and just about everything else, does fuel their creations. Besides condensing classics and writing English librettos for them, the duo are also working on original works—with Winkler writing the music and Smith doing the lyrics—that will reach their young audiences.
“We have a lot going on in our heads,” Winkler says, as Smith finishes his sentence by adding “but nothing we want to tell you about right now!”
Whatever they come up with—an opera version of Hannah Montana?—you can bet it will be a big hit with the kids. And maybe, just maybe, a life-changing experience.
“Even if it’s just one kid in 350, if we can light that spark, we’ve done our job,” sums up Winkler.
Opera, and in particular HGO, are their lives.
“I think it’s just a great place of opportunity,” says Winkler of the opera company.
“It’s opera-terrific!” adds Smith.
“I did not say that!” Winkler points out with a laugh.
Marene Gustin wrote about pets and their owners in the November issue of OutSmart.
Defying Disney: To kick off 2009, Houston Grand Opera to Go’s Kade Smith (l) and Chuck Winkler rework Antonín Dvorák’s Little Mermaid for local students in grades three through eight. The original operatic version of the story, with which many of the young audience members are likely less familiar than its animated retelling, plays Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at Heinen Theatre, January 26–February 13. Details: www.houstongrandopera.org/operatogo.