Student performers return to Wheeler in force

Aspen Community School students rehearse for their whole school musical, “The Magic Treehouse: Dancing Through the Decades” at the Wheeler Opera House on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

Performers began returning to audiences at the Wheeler Opera House last June, when the Aspen institution reopened for the first time in 15 long months of the pandemic. Soon, musicians are back on stage, as are actors, comedians and dancers, and feature films, short films and opera shows are back on screen, with ticket holders to see them.

But there’s still one member of the cohort that the general public hasn’t had a chance to see on the Wheeler stage since early 2020: the kids. This spring, the public will once again be able to see them perform. Many of them.

Nearly half a dozen young singers and instrumentalists from across the Roaring Fork Valley performed for the “Aspen Rocks” music competition on Saturday. Another 135 students from the Aspen Community School filled the hall this week, preparing for their original musical “The Magic Treehouse: Dancing Through the Decades.” The show started Thursday and ends Friday. And in a few weeks, another 167 Aspen Country Day School students will perform in “Starstruck,” a musical written by eighth graders, May 20-21.

“It’s a bit of a homecoming, and I think they light up a lot more when they’re in that space,” said Aspen Community School teacher Garry Pfaffmann, who wrote and directed the show for seven years.

Community school students have been performing their annual musical for nearly three and a half decades at the Wheeler, but the kids haven’t been here since the spring of 2019. Last year, back on campus, they produced a pre-recorded show instead.

Students from Aspen Country Day School were the last young performers to hit the stage in droves for the general public at the Wheeler before COVID-19 upended live performances. Aspen Country Day student performances also have a long history at the Wheeler, dating back to 1989.

The show in its own right, titled “Uncovered”, ran in late January 2020; normally their production takes place in the spring, but they had moved the date forward to work around some renovations at the Wheeler, according to an email from Carolyn Hines, the school’s communications director.

Marci Sketch, a longtime drama teacher at the school, said she considered it a stroke of luck that they got on stage just in time.

Aspen Country Day School had the chance to present a modified show in May 2021, with pre-recorded components of some classes and live actors from sixth, seventh and eighth graders, according to Sketch. The only people allowed in the audience were parents of eighth graders; they sat in masks, from a distance and on the balcony, Sketch said.

(Also last May, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet School performed and filmed student recitals on the Wheeler Stage without an audience, according to an email from Nicole Levesque, the opera’s marketing manager. This year, students from the school will perform at the district theater.)

Performing at the Wheeler raises the bar for these young performers, according to Pfaffmann and Sketch.

“Once they’re there, they’re kind of treated like actors,” Sketch said. “And the people who are at Wheeler who run the lights, the person who takes the sound — they talk to the kids like they’re professionals…and they’re just ushered into this world like it’s their life.”

Finalists in the inaugural “Aspen Rocks” competition last weekend certainly felt the brunt of it.

First place Kendall Vivanco, a 13-year-old singer and pianist from Two Rivers Community School, said she couldn’t believe the “incredible” experience. Runner-up Gracie Feinberg, a 14-year-old singer and guitarist from Aspen who attends Michigan’s Interlochen School for the Arts, said performing in her “home arena” was “really scary” – but also a “natural high “.

For third-placed Aspen Middle School singer Dante Clark, 13, the Wheeler was in a league of its own. (It was his first time on stage here, but not his first in front of a large audience; Clark also sang at the Benedict Music Tent in “South Pacific” a few summers ago.)

“I feel like the Wheeler Opera House had more meaning behind it, because the Wheeler Opera House is such a big name…a staple in Aspen,” Clark said.

That kind of experience can have an impact, said Aspen Community School principal Casey White.

“I think it settles into their memories,” she said.

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