By ML Ball
Photos: Courtesy of Diane Ryan
In the 1800s, Margaret Frances O’Mara McGuiness emigrated to America from her native Ireland. At some point, she bought a pair of mother-of-pearl-encrusted opera glasses “to be a fine lady and attend the opera,” Ryan explained. “Unfortunately, she never had the opportunity to go due to poor health.”
Upon McGuiness’s death, the glasses passed down to her son, James, then to his daughter, Ann, and then to Ann’s son, Michael—Ryan’s husband. Now the glasses belong to Michael and Diane’s daughter, Rebecca (who, incidentally, is the spitting image of Margaret Frances, the glasses’ original owner).
Three years ago, Ryan and her husband took the glasses to the Metropolitan Opera in New York for a performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. “It was the first time they had actually been to the opera,” Ryan said. “They had waited 100 years, passing through five generations, and I thought, ‘What a wonderful children’s story.’”
Before long, Ryan’s children’s book, Becca and the Magic Opera Glasses, was published, recounting the story of the treasured family heirloom.
Eager to share her book with young audiences, Ryan visited numerous libraries and schools, becoming more and more enamored with the idea of bringing opera to schoolchildren—not just in a book but live, in person. When she learned that Opera-to-Go, the educational arm of Opera Saratoga, was already doing this, she convinced Opera Saratoga’s leaders to bring Opera-to-Go to Ulster County.
Today, more than 1,300 children in four Ulster County schools—Kerhonkson Elementary, Ellenville Elementary, Marbletown Elementary and High Meadow School—have experienced live opera.
Ryan explained, “One of the brilliant things about Opera-to-Go is that it performs operatic versions of five fairy tales on an annual rotation. This year it’s The Ugly Duckling. This makes opera so much more accessible to the kids because they’re already familiar with the story. When they see the opera and hear these beautiful singers who have spent years training their voices, they love it. They absolutely love it.”
Mariah Wakefield, Opera Saratoga’s Marketing and Community Partnerships Manager, echoed this observation. “For many students, the Opera-to-Go program is their first introduction to live operatic performance, and the responses we get are nothing short of inspiring.”
Wakefield added, “Diane’s generosity has made it possible for us to expand our reach to schools in Ulster and Orange Counties. We’re so very grateful for all she does to bring opera to these children.”
As for Ryan, she’s working harder than ever to bring opera to more schools, and thus, more children.
“All children need to be exposed to the arts because the arts develop different aspects of ourselves, different parts of our brain and our emotional development,” Ryan said. “You cannot create a whole child if they do not have some kind of arts exposure when they are young.” Bravo!
For more information about Opera Saratoga and Opera-to-Go, visit www.operasaratoga.org. █