Mia Cavalieri as the Cat in the Hat with Erin Graves perform on the Freedom Hall stage during the Spotlight Performance Academy’s production of “Suessical Jr.” (Eric Crump photos/H-F Chronicle)
Entertainment, Feature

Performing arts: Spotlight Performance Academy answers community need to perform

Mia Cavalieri as the Cat in the Hat with Erin Graves perform on the Freedom Hall stage during the Spotlight Performance Academy’s production of “Suessical Jr.” (Eric Crump photos/H-F Chronicle)
Mia Cavalieri as the Cat in the Hat with Erin Graves perform on the Freedom Hall stage during the Spotlight Performance Academy’s production of “Suessical Jr.” (Eric Crump photos/H-F Chronicle)

If Spotlight Performance Academy were a flower, it would be bursting into bloom. And sending out rhizomes.

The community performing arts organization is growing in every direction, adding members, adding programs and adding connections to other arts organizations.

Carrie Bonanotte directs the Bel Canto Community Choir at Chamber Night in Flossmoor.
Carrie Bonanotte directs the Bel Canto Community Choir at Chamber Night 2023 in Flossmoor.

Spotlight is a non-profit organization that grew out of Bel Canto Children’s Choir, founded by Carrie Bonanotte in 2015. The beginning was briefly modest, as she recounted during the introduction to the organization’s fall concert on Nov. 19 at Homewood-Flossmoor High School’s Mall Auditorium.

“We started the Bel Canto Choir program in 2015 with eight children, and we practiced in my living room,” she said. “They were mostly just my piano students.”

Bonanotte had been a middle school choir director before deciding to stay home with her children. She kept having piano students ask to take voice lessons. The demand led to the formation of the group, which quickly grew.

“I still wanted to sing with kids, because it’s my favorite thing in the world to do,” she said.
In less than four years, Bel Canto became the largest children’s community choir in the South Suburbs, she said, noting that, for example, the fall concert last year had 72 singers. This year 120 singers took the stage.

The Bel Canto Children's Choir gets into the rhythm during the choir concert in November.
The Bel Canto Children’s Choir gets into the rhythm during the choir concert in November.

As with the Bel Canto Children’s Choir, the engine fueling the organization’s growth is the community members’ interest in having more performance opportunities and more learning opportunities.

Bonanotte said in the past 18 months the organization has created about eight new programs of its own, including the Bel Canto Community Choir for adults: a show choir (“to teach children how to sing and dance at the same time. It’s not as easy as you think,” Bonanotte said); a musical theater class; a production of “Spoon River,” a folk musical; and, coming in December, a song writing class led by Doug Raffety.

Bel Canto now has three different ensembles for young people, the children’s choir, a youth choir and a concert choir. The organization also produced the musical, “Suessical Jr.” in July.

Community choir

The community choir also grew quickly. Bonanotte said it had become the largest choir of its type in the South Suburbs in less than a year, with more than 50 members this fall.

The group performed at the Starry Nights/Pride event in Homewood in June and opened for the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra quartet at Chamber Night in Flossmoor in July.

The group seems to be an almost unique experience to Bonanotte.

“Where else do you find 50 adults that gather together to actually do something together? Not watch something, but do something together for fun,” she said.

The Bel Canto Community Choir performs during the Starry Night/Pride Fest event in Irwin Park.
The Bel Canto Community Choir performs during the Starry Night/Pride Fest event in Irwin Park.

No singing experience is required to join, and the membership includes people who have never sung before in a choir and people who perform regularly or are music teachers or band directors.

Bonanotte wondered at first if that mix of experience levels would work, but she said it has.

“Our primary goal is to have fun making music together,” she said. “We are not striving for perfection. We’re striving to create community through music.” She said that approach appeals to music professionals and amateurs alike.

Community choir members have reported on local social media channels that the group was their first opportunity to make adult friends in the community.

Behind the scenes

Spotlight Performance Academy was formed in 2021 to serve as an umbrella for the various and multiplying programs. Bonanotte serves as the executive director.

The administrative role has presented new challenges for her. She’s focusing more time on fundraising, including grant writing.

“I’m trying real hard to make this something that is sustainable,” she said.

Dancers perform on the Freedom Hall stage during the Spotlight Performance Academy production of "Suessical Jr."
Dancers perform on the Freedom Hall stage during the Spotlight Performance Academy production of “Suessical Jr.”

The fundraising is important to another goal: to keep programs affordable. She said Spotlight tuitions run about half the cost of similar programs in the region. A robust fundraising effort will help maintain accessibility, she said.

Bonanotte credits Spotlight’s 11-member board for helping the organization continue to grow and serve the needs of the community.

The academy is not only growing internally but is making connections with other area performing arts groups. In addition to opening for IPO, kids were able to participate in a Roosevelt University opera program and take improv classes with South of Chi, a local improv group.

The next goal is to rejuvenate the organization’s community service efforts. Bonanotte said that was an important part of the children’s choir experience before the pandemic, which curtailed service projects.

“We’re starting up again. It is our strong desire to teach students to use their voice not only on stage but out in the community as well,” she said.

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