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Time In Kids Receives a Special Visit from Opera Star Ailyn Perez

First Posted: May 19, 2016 11:45 AM EDT
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Ailyn Perez

Ailyn Perez (Photo : Francisco Salazar )

Imagine going to school one day and casually meeting a celebrity. Well for the students of PS 97 in Harlem, New York, the opportunity came to life when the first grade students were able to meet the Metropolitan Opera star Ailyn Perez at Time In Kids.

A day after her final performance at the Met, Perez took time in her hectic schedule to come and sing for the children. This was a dream come true not only for the kids of the program but for founder Cyndie Berthezene, who started the program and hoped to obtain outreach from the opera world.

Time in Kids

Time in Kids was founded by Berthezene as an effort to support the arts. It first started as a program for scholarship kids but realizing how much the kids loved to learn, she decided to find a way for kids who could not afford it. The result was a program that place during school so that they could go.

In the end, she created a program aimed for at-risk kids to ensure that they would have the same opportunities as privileged kids.

"I knew that what I had to do was create a program that was really aimed at an at-risk population - to ensure continuity - in order to do that it had to happen during the school day," she said. "That way every kid would have to come - and that's so important. Because with little kids, you don't have the slightest idea what direction you are going in. We tend to pigeonhole kids, girls this, boys, that. But some of greatest ballet lovers, for instance, are boys!"

Berthezene started working with the worst school in Harlem in 2006 and notes that it was a different Harlem from what it is today. "The school I was working with, PS 241, was in the middle of the one of the worst sections of Harlem and the school was on the verge of being closed. The police were in the school every day."

But it was her mission to make sure that the quality program she was giving was just as rich and inspiring as any great program for the rich and privileged.

Berthezene's dedication allowed children to thrive and her tactic is an unusual one. Berthezene loves opera and she herself is an opera singer. She realized that opera and ballet could have such a huge impact on the lives of kids and others and as a result she developed a program that combined both opera and art.

"It was through the things that I was doing as a singer with my own daughter that led me to understand what a profound effect opera, ballet and classical music have on children. On their intellectual, aesthetic and social emotional development," she noted. "Kids can project themselves into the characters, become completely immersed in the plot, they are inspired to move to the music, and they think about all the big questions that an opera might ask."

In many ways the program is allowing kids to be exposed to an art form that is seen as high art and unreachable. But for Berthezene, opera is the most complete art form.

"Opera gives them a way in for all kinds of literacy - cultural literacy and a connection to our history, of course, but also literature, poetry, visual arts, analysis. Through opera you can open so many doors."

A Special Visit

And that is exactly what Berthezene did unexpectedly when Ailyn Perez found them through social media. Perez, who was completing a run of Puccini's "La Boheme" at the Metropolitan Opera and is an active social media user, found the organization on Instagram.

"I was really thrilled. We have gotten huge attention through the art community - so many artists and galleries have been so extraordinarily generous with our kids, but the opera community, beyond Agnes Varis, has really been very closed and self-protective," Berthezene said.

Perez is a huge advocate for education and when she found out what Berthezene and Time In kids are doing, she quickly wrote a letter that said "Your program is a dream." But for Berthezene this was a dream come true for an opera singer to reach out and want to give back.

"To have someone who shares that passion - who feels that it's her responsibility and pleasure - to give back and share what she loves. It's just rare," she said.

Perez arrived at the studio at 11:30 a.m., prepared to perform and act with the children. At the beginning of the session, the kids acted out the second act of "La Boheme," while Perez sang her aria "Quando Me'n Vo." Later the kids started drawing their interpretations of Musetta as Perez sang the Waltz from Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" and walked around observing the kids.

Berthezene saw how emotional and incredibly moving the experience was for the children as they had the opportunity to interact and take pictures with her. Perez even took the time to sign autographs for the children.

"She's defining herself as a new kind of singer and that's tremendous for the future of opera - opera doesn't need to be updated - it needs to be cared for. And I think that's what Ailyn brings to the table - the openness to care for the art form she loves and to tend to it, share it with her heart," Berthezene said.

After the special visit from Perez, Time In Kids hopes to gets more visits from singers at the Met. Perez has already signed on as part of the advisory board and this could be a great opening for the program.

As for Berthezene, she hopes to continue to inspire children. Her mission is to continue to educate and as she notes, "Art is magic, it is the charm that makes a broken life whole and productive. Art is the secret passkey, giving children the tools and permission to shine."

(Photo : Francisco Salazar )
(Photo : Francisco Salazar )

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