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  • Writer's pictureArts Angle Vantage Journalist

Youth take the stage in Kentucky Opera's "The Hobbit" summer camp

By Addison Lowry | Arts Angle Vantage Reporter

duPont Manual High School, Class of 2026

LISTEN • Behind the Scenes of 'The Hobbit'By Addison Lowry

This story reported and produced as part of the 2024 Earshot Audio Storytelling Program.

Max Zheng as Bilbo and Malik Barker as Gandalf in Dean Burry's operatic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" by The Kentucky Opera's Youth Opera Project. Photo by Morgan Grubola Vonberg. Courtesy Kentucky Opera.

ALEXANDER PLACE, HOST: Founded in 1952, the Kentucky Opera has always been dedicated to including youth in its productions. Whether that is youth on the main stage or dedicated camps geared towards inclusivity, the opera puts its money where its mission is. “The Hobbit” Camp is the most recent example. It was a two-week immersive experience, open to kids ages 8 through 18. Although the opera offers many programs for youth, “The Hobbit” is different. Post-Covid, the arts struggled, and the Kentucky Opera wasn’t exempt from these hardships. “The Hobbit” marked a new era for the opera and an opportunity for youth to shine.

Arts Angle Vantage reporter Addison Lowry explored the mythical land of “The Hobbit.”

ADDISON LOWRY: It’s a dress rehearsal for “The Hobbit.” The dark room was illuminated with bright lights and children scattered everywhere waiting for their next cue. “The Hobbit” is a familiar story to many of these performers.

GORDON THOMAS: “The Hobbit” is this really complex story about this hobbit named Bilbo Baggins.

(A scene from the opera introducing Bilbo Baggins.)

Sophia Reno-Weber, Gordon Thomas, Verity Vonberg, Aya Timmerman in Dean Burry's operatic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" by The Kentucky Opera's Youth Opera Project. Photo by Morgan Grubola Vonberg. Courtesy Kentucky Opera.

ADDISON LOWRY: That was 13-year-old Gordon Thomas. He plays Dwalin the Dwarf.

Despite the story’s familiarity, this production has some very distinct differences. The costumes weren’t for elves, dwarfs or wizards but rather clothes that any modern kid would wear.

Sarah Berry, youth programs coordinator, describes this reimagining as children reading “The Hobbit” and bringing the story to life in their backyard. The opera’s goal was to integrate youth into the larger picture with hopes they could fall in love with performing.

SARAH BERRY: Just seeing their confidence on stage those first days of — oh we need you to do something that looks a little silly on stage. Now, they're like — we're kind of having to tone them down because they're doing such fun things that they have thought of.

(Sounds of a scene with characters running through the audience.)

ADDISON LOWRY: They're performing in a rehearsal hall. This means there wasn’t an elevated stage. The performers had to run through the audience to get off stage. This made for an extremely interactive audience experience.

(Sounds from a scene in the audience and on stage.)

Addison Lowry reporting at The Kentucky Opera's Youth Opera Project's rehearsal of "The Hobbit." Photo by Debra Murray.

ADDISON LOWRY: Similarly to Bilbo, each cast member went on their own journey. Throughout the camp, friendship, confidence and community were built.

SOPHIA RENO-WEBER: The process is long, long, long. And it's a lot of work. You have to pay attention to every step, and you have to be able to retain what they tell you. You have to get all the cues, so you gotta be really focused on what you're doing.

ADDISON LOWRY: Thirteen-year-old Sophia Reno-Weber was one of the leads in the cast and she acted as Azog.

SOPHIA RENO-WEBER: I am a lot more confident in speaking and singing to big crowds.

MALIK BARKER: Yes, I've noted, due to the way that the acting and the music is conveyed, because we don't have personal microphones. But it's also a big room, too, so we just have to be loud while also maintaining the tone and such that we were already doing.

ADDISON LOWRY: Seventeen-year-old Malik is really passionate about theater. But this story had a personal connection for him.

Youth programs coordinator Sarah Barry (center left) bows on stage with the director of "The Hobbit," Chris Mirto (center right), and cast of in The Kentucky Opera's Youth Opera Project. Photo by Morgan Grubola Vonberg. Courtesy Kentucky Opera.

MALIK BARKER: OK. So, my late grandfather, he, he loved, he loved all the Tolkien stuff. He would sit in the back room watching. He would sit in the back room watching. Watched it for like a day. Watching all three movies. And sometimes I'd go back. I'd go in there and watch it with him. I was, like, six, so I didn't really understand what was happening. But it was still fun. And it kind of brings back some of those memories for me.

ADDISON LOWRY: Sarah talked about the growth she saw in her students these past two weeks. And at the end of the camp, it seems as if they’ve done that, here's some advice from our cast for aspiring performers.

SARAH BERRY: Keep, keep going. Keep doing it. Don't give up. Don't stop because it's hard. Because it is. Um, it's scary. Um, but, but they've got it. They've got it in them to do it.

SOPHIA RENO-WEBER: So be happy to be there. Be happy to see all these people and, really, just try to be chill with everybody. Right? Don't pick one side or only hang out with these people. Know everybody. Learn about everybody. That's my advice.

MALIK BARKER: Be louder! Be louder! You think they can hear you? They can't hear you! Don't pick the mic though. Don't pick the mic.

GORDON THOMAS: Keep acting. Keep singing. Believe in yourself.

For Arts Angle Vantage I’m Addison Lowry.

(A scene from the opera. Fade.)

Addison Lowry, a rising junior at duPont Manual High School, has been on the digital team for the school's On The Record magazine and executive producer for the podcast 13 Firsts, created by duPont Manual students. She also is the podcast coordinator for the Kentucky Student Voice Team, a state-wide, student-led organization that gives youth a voice in education and other issues statewide. She enjoys reading romance books, watching romantic comedies and listening to all kinds of music.


Made possible by Metro Louisville and the University of Louisville Department of Communications and Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning.


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