TAMU-CC Presents World Debut of Children’s Film Opera ‘Olivia’s Ocean’

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – It began with a conversation at a mixer. Dr. Ellen Denham, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi professional assistant professor of Music, visited with Dr. Larry McKinney, then-senior executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, and several HRI staffers at the event in fall 2019. When the conversation turned to oyster farming, the notion of an “oyster opera” was born.

“After the mixer, I reached out to my colleague, Dr. Ross Bernhardt, who is a wonderful composer and professor of Music. Ross and I met with Larry and with Gail Sutton, HRI associate director for Institutional Initiatives, Finance and Administration, last spring and pitched the idea of a children’s opera sharing the message of ocean sustainability,” Denham said. “They gave us some great info on a problem where individuals have a chance to make an impact— keeping trash out of the ocean — which has led to the creation of ‘Olivia’s Ocean.’”


Olivia's Ocean

In celebration of World Oceans Day 2021, the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC) presents “Olivia’s Ocean” on June 8, 2021.

Written for an all-ages audience, the storyline revolves around Olivia, a 13-year-old girl living in Corpus Christi who loves to go fishing on her grandfather’s boat. Through a series of adventures, Olivia learns valuable lessons about ocean sustainability and about herself. Bernhardt’s score features original compositions influenced by many different musical styles, including classical, funk, pop, and even a circus waltz.

McKinney, who is now the director of Gulf Strategies at HRI, said he was won over by Denham’s and Bernhardt’s excitement about the project.

“When Ellen and Ross came to me with their idea, their enthusiasm sold me on the idea and the rest, as they say, is history. I am sure there has never been another fish opera like ‘Olivia’s Ocean,’ and I was happy to see that it delivers a powerful conservation message in a most unique way,” McKinney said.

On June 8, the sum result of that conversation will be released virtually at 9 a.m.: the world premiere of “Olivia’s Ocean,” a family-friendly opera film commissioned by HRI and directed by Daewon Kim, TAMU-CC assistant professor of Media Production, Producer Scott Thurman, TAMU-CC assistant professor of Media Production, and a small team of media production students. “Olivia’s Ocean” features text by Denham and music by Bernhardt.   

“Ellen wrote the libretto over the summer of 2020, and I started work on composing in August. It was a very intense timeline because I was writing basically one song per week, while teaching my usual load in addition to splitting an extra full load with Ellen,” Bernhardt said. “I spent our winter break finishing up the composition and cleaning up the printed score to get to the students.”

The production includes nine student singers and three student instrumentalists performing in the production – an additional music student served as a production assistant. All four scenes of the opera were filmed in the Performing Arts Center on April 13-14 by Kim and his student team of two camera operators, two camera assistants, and an assistant director.

Kim said the production addressed some key issues along the way. This included observing COVID-19 safety protocols while performing and adapting to cinematic acting.

“‘Olivia’s Ocean’ was different from typical filmmaking because of its tight filming schedule – hopefully this experience will help these students think about their major in a new way,” Kim said.

Senior Brooke Ngo ’22 landed the title role in the production. Ngo, a Music Studies major, said the process of learning the music while wearing masks proved challenging as singers often struggle to hear one another clearly. Performers made adjustments for the filming process as well.

“A lot of my stage acting was in the eyebrows and in my eyes because that’s what you could see during rehearsal,” Ngo said.

Music Education major Hunter Higgins ’22 plays Grandpa in the production. Although Higgins performed in five songs, he said his favorite piece was one that he doesn’t appear in.

“The song ‘Just One Cup’ is one of Olivia’s solos and from the first time I heard it, it’s been stuck in my head,” Higgins said. “To this day, I can probably sing every word.”

 Denham recently shared details about the experience of directing “Olivia’s Ocean” and the joy of collaboration when she served as Outstanding Faculty Speaker in March.

“Opera is combination of so many wonderful things: We have music, drama, dance, scenic elements, and shared energy between performers and their audience. And there is nothing like being onstage or backstage, or in the audience with a full orchestra, full cast of singers, lights, costume, scenery, and stagehands,” Denham said. “A creative collaboration is like food for me. I need it, literally to survive, and being inspired by and working with other smart and creative people, including my own students, is just what absolutely makes me. It makes life fulfilling to me, and I know a lot of other performing artists are like that.”

To view the world premiere screening, go to the HRI’s YouTube Channel at: youtu.be/uOqfJvQrf_k.