“The kids choose their own opera company name each year,” warns Karen Kimball, Lakewood Elementary’s music teacher who, along with math teacher Rita Samuels, are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the school opera program they’ve directed together.
“Tell her what it is,” sighs Samuels.
“We’ve had everything from ‘Opera-tion 98’ to ‘Party Like It’s 1999’ to ‘Blackout 2000,'” Kimball continues as Samuels shakes her head ruefully.
“And… this year it’s the ‘Mad Cow Mafia Opera Company’.”
At least the t-shirts should be interesting.
One of the only two Dallas schools – the other being Hockaday – who have instructors trained in the grade school opera program created by New York’s Metropolitan, Lakewood Elementary utilizes its music forum for teaching reading, writing and history. Students headed to the Dallas Opera’s February performance of Tosca have been learning about the Napoleonic Era, the time period in which the opera is set. In addition, each year a portion of the school’s sixth graders take a personal step-by-step journey into the musical arts by writing, producing and performing in an opera all their own.
“In the fall, they apply for ‘jobs’ and can fill as many as three,” Kimball says. “We give them an introductory letter, and their parents can see what the expectations are. A student who fills out a choice sheet to do set design, for instance, would probably draw a picture… students wanting to perform will audition, which is a little different. We have call-backs and everything.”
“Jobs” include: writer, composer, public relations, performer, set designer, stage manager, production manger, carpenter, electrician, make-up, costume and documentation. All told, about 50 students will fill shoes that generally run several sizes larger in the grown-up world of theater, and professionalism and responsibility are equally stressed.
“We talk about this from day one of school,” Samuels says. “About how each group has to be responsible and how they have to complete the tasks on their own. I tell them: there are only two of us.”
“Rita and I are sitting on the front row the night of production,” Kimball says. “We’re not backstage. They do it themselves.”
Production challenges over the years have included collapsing sets and male leads going through voice changes (a bona fide 6th grade performance hazard), but Samuels says: “We’re always amazed. With every group we worry that they’re never going to get through it. And they always do, and in flying colors.”
Samuels and Kimball know what they’re asking. “Rita and I have worked at the Metropolitan’s education department in New York,” Kimball says. “We’ve gone through all these things ourselves. First one we did… they divided the teachers into two groups, and we had to write an opera and completely develop one scene. The last day, they gave us the other group’s scene, and we had to stage that scene, which we’d never seen before, by the next afternoon – lights, songs, lines, everything. The whole idea was: Gotta get it done. But it was fun.”
The teaching duo say the original Lakewood Elementary operas are generally about something the students are going through, something meaningful to them.
“We don’t do fantasy stories – this is kids writing for kids,” Kimball says.
“In this year’s production,” Samuels says, “Five children get snowed in a cabin and play this game called ‘Pressure’. The object of the game is to answer a series of questions that range from being disappointed by your parents to bullying to feeling left out of the crowd to being forced to do something by your peers. The characters each come away from the experience feeling like they found have other ways to help themselves.”
How long will all this take?
“By January,” Kimball says, “we’ll be in opera period every day – the Metropolitan has set a standard of a minimum of 100 hours.”
Both teachers say the school’s parents and community have been as supportive of the program as the school itself.
“We’re never wanting for anything,” Samuels says. “And every year, we see parents who don’t have children who go here, and they attend the performance because they had children who participated in the opera before. And they come every year…the seats are packed and we have people sitting in the aisles.”
“Kids also come back every year from Long and Woodrow. And they say: Ours was better,” Kimball laughs. “Last year, all the seventh graders came in their opera company t-shirts from the year before.”
Samuels notes that many of the opera company students will attend Long, where students produce an original musical written by a neighborhood volunteer, and later will attend Woodrow and participate in that school’s lavish spring musical. “The real point of this is… there are lots of musicals packaged for kids to do,” Kimball says. “But our focus is…we want to have a good production, and we do, but it’s the process more than the product.
“The kids write this themselves; they own it. This is the only time it’s completely theirs.”
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