Italian for beginners

It’s not everyday someone can teach a Japanese child to sing in Czechoslovakian. But that is exactly what Karen Lauria Saillant accomplished during one of her most recent operatic performances.

She cast close to 40 children in the Philadelphia production of "Brundibar and the Children of Terezin," placing her spin on the tale of children rising up against an evil organ grinder.

It was a feat to have her young stars sing in four different languages — French, German and English being the other three — despite the fact the soprano herself can belt out tunes in eight tongues.

Bringing her talent to South Philly, Saillant is opening youngsters’ eyes to the wonders of learning — and, more importantly to her, singing — a new language.

This month, she began the Filitalia Children’s Choir at the Filitalia National Headquarters, 1834 E. Passyunk Ave., an educational and social center that promotes the Italian culture.

Since Saillant, who lives in Center City, has created 25 pieces for children over the past 40 years, the singer feels she’s the right person for the job. Especially because she has a direct connection with Italy as artistic director for the International Opera Theater, where she created two Shakespearean operas and is currently working on "La Tempesta," the theater’s third.

Serving on Filitalia’s cultural committee, Saillant was asked by the organization if she was interested in undertaking any new projects. Starting up a children’s choir immediately came to mind.

"The future is in our children, and to share the Italian culture with our children is a great gift as a musician, especially an opera singer," said Saillant. "I believe in the Italian language, the culture of Italy and its power to inspire, and the gift one receives for singing in Italian."

As of now, 10 children have signed on for rehearsals, which began Saturday. The choir is typically for those between 8 and 14, but Saillant is flexible with adding others outside this range.

Judging from her past experiences with children, Saillant expects the rehearsals, which will last a month and reconvene in September, to be a growing experience for everyone involved.

"Parents tell me their children don’t stop singing," she said. "Everybody in the house knows the songs and they’re so proud of themselves when they sing in these foreign languages. It’s very good for the self-esteem of the child. It gives them a new opportunity to start out fresh, creating new synapses in the brain."

THE BEAUTY OF Saillant’s teaching technique rests in making it seem like child’s play when, in fact, it’s anything but.

First she hones in on the youth’s musical abilities and administers lessons accordingly. While it might be a struggle for a child to speak — let alone sing — a new language, Saillant attempts to make it as painless as possible.

"They hear me say it, but they can also see it written down," said Saillant, also the founder and co-director of the American International School for La Commedia dell’Arte, a form of professional theater originally created by Italian actors during the Renaissance. "In Italian, we have sounds that the English language doesn’t have. I would write the closest thing possible in our language, but I would [also] let them hear what it sounds like."

The children also work with audiotapes that "include the pronunciation of words and accompaniment to songs," she added.

To avoid possible stagnant performances, Saillant will encourage the children to feel the music’s rhythm, using pieces of cloth to evoke movement while singing.

"I would like very much for the choir not to stand still," she said. "I’d like them to move. We’ll move and express ourselves through music."

While Saillant is unsure of the specific songs she will teach, both popular and classical Italian pieces are possibilities in the repertoire. The singer also will encourage her pupils to construct their own music.

"It’s an hour and 15 minutes of fun and education, but they don’t realize it," said Saillant with a laugh.

She hopes the choir will first showcase their budding talents at a Filitalia awards ceremony in June, but nothing has been finalized.

For now, Saillant would like the children to understand that practice really does make perfect.

"My real goal is that they start singing around the house and start singing everywhere," she said.

While gaining knowledge of another culture, children also will learn a life lesson in the process, Saillant added.

"I’d like them to feel more confident in themselves," she said. "They will become more musical. They will learn to love to sing."

Rehearsal fees for the Filitalia Children’s Choir are $15 per lesson. For more information, contact Karen Lauria Saillant at 215-545-4385 or Filitalia at 215-334-8882.