PHOTO BY Benjamin Hager

The four fresh-faced girls sit giggling, bouncing and trying unsuccessfully to sit still under the bright dressing-room lights. They are similarly clothed in heavy, tattered rags, stockings (under which one can make out a trace of knee pads) and black beanies that only partially contain unruly locks.

On this night, the children — 10-year-old Chloe Gilpin, a student at St. John’s Episcopal, her sister Sophie, 6, who attends St. James Episcopal, and Highlander School students Emmie and Julia Rose Arduino, 10 and 8 years old, respectively — have just exited the stage of the Dallas Opera’s production of Boris Godunov.

Collectively, the children have just crawled on hands and knees, begged for food, teased and robbed a crazy old man, and died, perhaps more than once. And they sang — the four young sopranos belted out their lines so beautifully that the listener might question whether such bold song could emit from such a small person.

They felt virtually no fear before the packed house at the Winspear and had a grand time playing the poor, starving and neglected children of 16th century Russia. When they deliver lines, they don’t really know what they are singing, says Chloe and Sophie’s mom, Beth Gilpin, who had a non-singing role in the production.

Gilpin, along with Emmie and Julia Rose’s mom Natalie Arduino, who herself is a critically acclaimed mezzo-soprano, translate words for the young actors and explain the overriding themes of the opera, Gilpin says.

“They don’t know what it feels like to be a starving child, or even know that there is such a thing,” Gilpin says. “Before they can play one, they have to understand.”

The girls — all inspired by their talented mothers and, in the case of the younger ones, older siblings — boast lengthy résumés for their young ages: Chloe has seven operas under her belt; Emmie has three; Julia Rose and Sophie, two each. They sing for school and church choirs and act in school plays. The Dallas Opera, for children’s roles, uses kids who have had some stage experience, be it at school, church or some other form of theater.

In opera, the roles of children are never gratuitous, says Dallas Opera media director Suzanne Calvin. “When children appear in opera it is always important,” Calvin says. “Boris Godunov was no exception.”

Once they have been selected for an opera choir and perform well — as the older girls did in 2009’s Dallas Opera production of “La Boehme” — they will undoubtedly be cast in future productions. “Once you’re in, you’re in,” Gilpin notes.Calvin adds that it is not easy to find the right children for the job — the Gilpin and Arduino girls’ talents are a “proven commodity.”

Generally, the girls appear in two or three shows per year. The nights can run late — they sometimes feed little Sophie chocolate to keep her awake — and the schedule is tough, but all involved agree that it’s well worth the hard work.

They spend down time backstage doing homework and then playing board games. It’s different, but not exceedingly different from the way other families invest their time, Gilpin says. “Some families have kids who play soccer; we have opera kids.”


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