As Falstaff lustily sings in the waning minutes of the opera by that name, there's a little bit of fool in everybody, and folks might just as well laugh about it and go on.

Not a bad lesson for the hundreds of Utah school students who packed the Capitol Theatre Thursday night for the final dress rehearsal of "Falstaff."Other things young people learn from such an experience, according to Carol Jean Summerhays, is that classical music, including opera, is not onerous, boring or too high-brow for their tastes. "Some of it is downright silly," she said in a pre-opera interview.

"Some of these kids expect a terrible experience every time, but without exception, they enjoy it," said Summerhays, who chaperoned a group of students from Hillside Intermediate School.

The laughs that filled the theater Thursday evening as Falstaff and his fellow bumblers waded through a delightful three acts of nonsense were evidence that she was right once again.Young people, most of them dressed to the nines and on their best behavior, were enjoying a formal night out for a price that was right - $2 each. The affordable price and the opportunity to learn something about a special art form generally fill the house for opera dress rehearsals since they have been opened to students, said Pauline Pace, who heads the program as an opera volunteer.

In Summerhays' group were several youngsters who had seen opera performances before, including Russ Larson, who has a family legacy in the arts. His grandmother is Shirley Ririe, well-known in Utah dance circles.

"I like opera," he said. "But there's less action than there is in dance."

Mike Rich also was no newcomer to opera. This summer, his family will attend "Les Miserables" while on a trip to California, he said. The hit production is being acclaimed as a form of American opera.

Summerhays is one of many Utah teachers who take advantage of the Utah Opera invitation to bring students to dress rehearsals of major productions. As the demand has grown, she finds herself with more competition for the limited number of seats.

"Opera is an acquired taste," she said. "It's not automatic to our culture, and children have to be educated to enjoy it." Supertitles that summarize what is being sung in a foreign language "have made a huge difference," she added.

Preparing her students is her commitment to the opera opportunity. She talks to them ahead of time about the story line of upcoming productions so they arrive at the Capitol Theatre ready to enjoy the performance.

Thursday night, the students got an additional lesson in opera production during intermissions as Anne Ewers, the opera's new general director, explained scenery changes - the "flying" pieces of scenery attached to a counterweight system that moved Falstaff from the local pub to the home of his prospective lady love and then to the forest; the chair with "doctored" legs so it wouldn't "slide into the orchestra pit" from the sloped stage, the essential work of the 17-member stage crew and the 50-piece orchestra.

In all, she said, 130 people have cooperated, at a cost of $300,000, to produce Falstaff.

Recently, Utah Opera officers told the Utah State Office of Education that of all the students in the country who see opera, 10 percent live in Utah. Besides the theater performances, opera groups go into local schools to introduce children to the various productions. In 1989-90, 132 schools were visited, with 65,547 children given the opportunity to see snippets of current season operas. An additional 3,600 attended live dress rehearsal performances.


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Exposing students to the arts

Organizations that provide free or reduced-cost experiences for school students:- Utah Symphony has the oldest outreach program among the performing arts groups. Symphony members present docent concerts for fifth-graders in Alpine, Davis, Granite, Jordan, Murray and Salt Lake districts, preceded by preparation sessions. Maestro Joseph Silverstein teaches a limited number of classes for outstanding string students.

- Ballet West introduces elementary children to ballet through Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty performances. Older students may visit the theater for excerpts from such productions as Romeo and Juliet. The ballet provides a workshop for teachers and school administrators throughout the state and, with limited resources, is trying to increase outreach programs beyond Salt Lake County.

- Hansen Planetarium serves more than 100,000 students every year through free visits to the planetarium. A mobile "astrovan" takes programs to schools throughout the state. "Star parties" introduce students to astronomy, and the planetarium also prepares and distributes teaching materials.