ORLANDO, Fla. – When Opera Orlando's production of "Hansel and Gretel" takes the stage this weekend, it will be sweet homecoming for one of the show's stars.
Jess Munoz plays the witch. He first encountered opera as a 10-year-old student at Meadow Woods Elementary in south Orlando.
"It was a transformative moment for me," Munoz said. "I was just mesmerized. It was the first time I had ever heard operatic voices. I was accustomed to singing in my local church, but I had never heard such beautiful singing like on that day."
Munoz credits his parents for being so supportive. Two weeks later, he auditioned for Opera Orlando's Youth Company.
"Through Opera for Youth as a child, I learned about discipline. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to be able to learn how to sing in different languages," he said.
Since then, the tenor has performed all over the world and teaches voice and opera at the University of Delaware. He says he loves any time he can perform in his hometown.
"It's probably one of the more important scores that came out of Germany in the 19th century. It's definitely one of the more fun roles in the entire operatic cannon. So for me to be able to bring it back home to Orlando is a thrill. It's a joy," Munoz said.
Munoz will be joined on stage by 16 members of the youth company.
"So for these young kids to get a sense of, 'Oh, there's someone like me who got his start in the youth company and went on to have a career.' This opens their eyes to a field of opportunities," said Opera Orlando's Executive and Artistic Director Gabriel Preisser.
Preisser said the youth company is audition-based.
"The auditions are more to see how we could place you or use you in the shows," Preisser said.
Preisser said in addition to performing in the company's main productions, the students also produce their own show. In May they'll perform "Noye's Fludde," with the youth orchestra from Jones High School.
Munoz said he's proud to represent diversity in the arts as he meets students.
"I remember as a child when I would see diversity on the stage, it was something that would inspire me. No one in my family really knew anything about classical music. And so I feel that need to give back the gift of song," Munoz said. "It really is exciting to be able to speak to our local students and remind them, especially our local students of color, that classical music does belong to you. It is part of your heritage as well, and there's a place for you on the stage."
"Hansel and Gretel" is at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts this weekend. For tickets, click here.
If you'd like to get your child involved in the youth company, the next auditions are in January. More information about the program is available here.