QUINCY -- Madison School first-grade classmates Victoria Kuhlmeier and Evan Zanger agreed on their favorite part of the Hansel and Gretel story.
They both liked it when the siblings pushed the witch into the oven during Monday's Muddy River Opera Company presentation of "Hansel and Gretel" in collaboration with Quincy University.
"The witch was funny," Evan said.
"I liked when they were singing," Victoria said.
Developing an appreciation for opera was a goal of the children's outreach productions offered at 10 schools in Illinois and three in Missouri by opera workshop casts from QU, John Wood Community College and Culver-Stockton College.
"We're exposing young students to music at an early age, especially opera music, which we think is important. We need performers for opera, and we also need people who appreciate opera," said Amy Stollberg, QU's director of choirs.
The QU students "need to know what it's like to perform in an opera, which is different than musical theater, and in an elementary school," she said. "It's giving them some skills they hopefully will use if they choose to perform in the future."
The story, already familiar to most of the students, "is a fairy tale that appeals to all ages," said Carol Mathieson, director of the C-SC Opera Workshop.
"Opera is the formal end of musical theater, and sometimes people think they can't possibly approach it," she said. "If we introduce children to that early, they carry away a lifelong love of the fine arts."
Madison School students came on stage to help the Sand Fairy put Hansel and Gretel to sleep and with the Dew Fairy to wake them up in the forest.
"We read the story to the students. They're very excited about it," first-grade teacher Jannele Novosel said. "They just put on a performance of 'The Three Little Pigs' last week, a little musical. To see other people perform is kind of fun."
Production Director Connie Phillips explains that opera is different than doing a play.
"Everything is to music. Everything they're doing to tell the story is sung," she said.
It's also different than watching television "when they get to film it over and over again. When you're doing it on stage it's live," Phillips said. "If something breaks (as it did Monday morning), we just have to figure it out as we go along."
And it's fun, said David Czechut-Webb, a QU percussion major who played the witch and hopes for a career performing. "I really like playing villains," he said.
The students smiled and laughed as Czechut-Webb played the villainous witch with some comic flair -- and sent a message to the young audience.
"When I was younger, I really liked to sing and really liked to perform, but it wasn't something a lot of my fellow students enjoyed," he said. "Coming out and doing this extends the branch to kids who like to perform and says you get to do this later on. You don't have to just play sports."