Austin's Big L.E.A.P.
By José Grinán

Reprinted from "Attitudes magazine" A new direction for Arts & Culture In Houston, Texas.

On a cool autumn night 9 years ago in Austin, the capitol city of the great state of Texas, the curtain went up on opening night and the hall fell silent. Izola Jones, a renowned African-American soprano was appearing on stage as the lead in the opera, "Carmen". There was nothing unusual about this performance for Ms Jones. She had sung the role many times before. But this was a special night for Cheryl Middleton, and her twin sister Sandra. They were among several dozen special teenagers from an organization known in the Austin area as LEAP... the Leadership Enrichment Arts Program. Most of the teenagers were African-American, and this was their first opera.

"It was great! It exposed us to a lot of different things" says Sandra Middleton, who recently graduated from Texas A & M along with her sister. "It was like watching a play... but it was more alive." Thinking back on that night 9 years ago, Cheryl Middleton, who had only seen bits and pieces of opera on television "flipping through the channels", says it was awesome. " I had never been to an opera before." The designs of the set and the costumes caught her attention from the start. "They were so colorful and so alive", but it was the singing that really caught her by surprise. She had no idea of the strong booming voices of opera singers.

Sitting nearby was Ada Anderson, a founding trustee of the Austin Lyric Opera, and the creator and founder of LEAP, which targets minority students and their parents and exposes them to opera and much more. "Those kids were so excited" she says of that night. " And that didn't surprise her either. She says, they looked at it (opera) as a new art form that included other art forms. "It has drama. It has visual arts... when you look at the costumes and you look at the set. It has of course the voices, and the music which just enthralled the kids". But it wasn't just the kids; the parents were also enjoying what LEAP offered. Just ask Sherry Middleton. She enjoyed "Carmen" that night as much as, if not more than her two daughters, even though this was her first opera, too. "I thought I'd be bored and would fall asleep. But I was really surprised" she said.


Through LEAP Ada Anderson wanted to expose teenagers between 13 and 18 years old to the opera, but she didn't want to limit the program to just opera. She wanted to use LEAP as a vehicle to help the teens identify and pursue personal goals, raise their self-esteem, help raise their level of career aspirations and instill in them some self-confidence. In a nutshell, she wanted her program to develop the "total kid"... a future leader. She's quick to let you know that LEAP has a bottom line, which is "helping these kids get into the college of their choice and to show them how to be successful once they're there.

Joseph McClain, the General Director of the Austin Lyric Opera, commends Anderson on her approach, saying "through the exposure to the arts, they (the kids) will be open to ways they can lead in their community, and the much larger community". He goes on to add "these kids will realize they can take an active part in their future". McClain feels LEAP would not have existed so long without Anderson at the helm. "She made it happen," he says. He adds that LEAP has matured to the point where it can be "replicated in other cities". He also hints that other ethnic groups could take on a similar program. McClain says, LEAP uses art to educate and develop. " Exposure to the arts opens up their (the students) thinking about who they can be, what they can do and what their potential is in the world". And Anderson wants the students involved in LEAP to expand their horizons and acquire a better outlook on life. She says, " I have a real serious problem with people saying I don't need that 'cause it's white folks stuff." She adds that it's important for people to understand that "opera is not just European." She tells the students in LEAP; "you live in a global society. You must think globally. You must go far beyond your neighborhood, you must think beyond your city, and beyond your state".

In addition to taking its participants to operas, visits to museums and other cultural exhibits, LEAP also sponsors receptions for local businessmen and women, and forums for political candidates. For both events, the students are responsible for part of the planning, the hosting, and in the case of the forums, all of the introductions and questioning of prospective office holders. Anderson says, this was a way to help them learn to feel comfortable around adults and develop some self-esteem. "We do what we call exposing them to successful adults of all kinds of careers and all kinds of colors."

For Cheryl Middleton, the receptions and forums were a wonderful learning experience. She says, " at a time when I didn't know what I wanted to do in life... it was pretty neat that they had time specifically meant for us to mingle with various professionals in various fields to see what they do, and to see what their jobs were like, and whether they liked their jobs." Cheryl is now a programmer analyst for a major corporation. But at one time she wanted to be a lawyer. LEAP offered her the opportunity, while in high school, to meet dozens of lawyers and judges in the Austin area. Sherrie, her mother says the exposure her daughters were given to professional women and men gave them a great outlook on life. " I think its good and all kids should have an opportunity to meet people of all different areas of work."

LEAP also holds periodic work sessions with the students to show them how to apply for admission to a college and also how to apply for scholarships. LEAP also provides financial assistance to those students whose parents cannot afford to pay for college. Part of the program involves getting the students not just prepared but also accustomed to college life. That's where a component called "a taste of college" comes into play. It allows a student to live on a college campus for 2 weeks with a roommate, take classes, attend seminars, and participate in putting on an opera production. It initially started with Wellesley and St. Edward's College. Now LEAP is associated with Texas A & M University, Trinity College, Emory University, Cornell University, George Washington University, Southern Methodist University, Lamar university, Drake University, Duke University, and a number of college preparatory high schools.

LEAP's existence grew out of a community outreach program of the ALO in 1989. It was during a time when there was an enormous push to attract and enlist (minority) members and patrons to support the ALO. Anderson says, "when the Opera was organized, and there wasn't a huge ready made audience in any culture, everybody was helping with audience development and this was my way." There was no funding for the first year, just artistic and technical support from the ALO. However, she was determined to make it work. Anderson says even when she couldn't find a corporate sponsor she didn't get discouraged. But everything eventually worked out better than expected. She says, "with the help of former federal judge Gabrielle McDonald, a plea was made to local Black attorneys in October of 1989. The response was overwhelmingly positive, "Individually, for 110 dollars they could sponsor a kid for the whole year." Soon afterward, " other black professionals did the same thing. So the first year was funded 100 percent by African-Americans." LEAP began that first season with enough funding for more than 100 kids to get their first taste of opera.

Anderson was responsible for raising all of the money to pay for opera tickets the first year. She says she oftentimes insisted on the best seats in the house, too, right behind the trustee. "I insisted that if they were going to have an experience, I wanted their first experience to be a very good experience. And I didn't want them thrown up in the balcony". According to ALO General Director McClain, LEAP has grown so much over the years that it now has its own non-profit status. However, the ALO remains the fine arts provider and donates tickets to LEAP students and their parents for each opera performance. The ALO also holds "prep sessions" for the students and their parents, in which performers discuss the production and present a brief overview before the performance. Anderson says, "frequently some of the performers come by. And when we have an African-American performer, generally they will really go out of the way to come visit with the kids".

LEAP has shown that it has weathered the test of time. It "has matured" in the words of the ALO's General Director, Joseph McClain. And in the process it has exposed thousands of African Americans, and other minorities in the Austin area, to a new art form, opera.

Though retired, Anderson says she still spends a lot of time working with LEAP because she is motivated to expose the African-American teenagers to the basics of all of the cultural things and help them become aware of the value that can be derived from it.

Although the actual number of students involved with LEAP since its inception is still being tabulated at press time, Anderson says going into its 10th year, LEAP has a good track record, "every single kid who has remained in the program through their high school years... has gone to college. And I don't know anyone that's flunked out." She confidently adds, "since LEAP started 9 years ago with 105 kids, she believes more than 1,500 Austin area teenagers have experienced the program.

As LEAP moves forward to its 10th year, Ada Anderson would like to expand the program to other cities. And some already feel her vision, perseverance; dedication will eventually make it happen.

Reflecting back to the first time LEAP students attended the opera, Anderson recalls the impression left on them by Izola Jones, the star of "Carmen".

" It was a big night for them. "They were young African-Americans being exposed to a new art form, and the star of that art form was an African-American. That says something special to an African-America child who had never experienced opera." And the experience of opera will continue. Anderson says the students involved with LEAP will get a chance to attend three major operatic productions this season; Otello opens in November, Salome in January, and Tosca in March. It is sure to be a great experience for the kids, one that will help them LEAP into the future.

José Grinán, Morning News Anchor, KIRV-TV, FOX 26

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