Lakewood sixth-graders receive a crash course in opera

Before reading any further, throw out all your preconceived notions about opera — the language barrier, the bellowing tenor … even the fat lady.

An opera company right here in Lakewood has dismissed those trappings. Because sixth graders perform it, stage it, promote it and write it.

“It is theirs. It is totally created by them,” Lakewood Elementary School teacher Karen Kimball says. “We’re there to direct and guide.”

Each year since 1993, Lakewood Elementary sixth-graders have formed an opera company. Students write the story, compose the music, build the sets, design the costumes, manage the production, play the parts, direct the actors and promote the show.

“It’s a totally original production each year,” Kimball says.

Kimball, the school’s music teacher, started the program after she and fellow teacher Rita Samuels attended training by New York’s Metropolitan Opera Guild. Last year, Lakewood was one of 400 schools across the country participating in the Met’s Creating Original Opera Program.

“There are schools all over the U.S. that participate in this program,” Kimball says. The Met’s website lists 19 in Texas.

Lakewood’s upcoming production marks the 13th year the school has participated.

“It really has become a tradition for our community,” she says. “We have parents who have kids in college who come back to see the show and remember when their kids were in it.”

But Kimball has made a few changes to the production schedule this year. In the past, students started working on the opera in the fall, using an hour here and there of class time to reach a February show date.

But because teachers did not want to distract from Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills preparation, Kimball and Samuels delayed the opera project. This year, after TAKS testing, sixth graders will spend their entire school days in “opera camp.”

“They will be doing nothing but opera for two weeks,” Kimball says. “We know it will work in the two weeks because we did it twice last summer with camps at the Dallas Opera.”

But the kids won’t be missing out on lessons, Kimball says. The opera production incorporates subjects such as writing, math and science.

“They just think, ‘Oh, boy, this is the coolest thing. We’re not going to have class,’” Kimball says. “But all of these disciplines are covered during these two weeks.”

Lakewood has about 65 sixth graders, and all will participate in the opera. They start by applying for jobs such as production manager, actor, electrician, makeup artist, publicist and musician.

The students choose a company name, craft their own script and write the accompanying music. They also build the sets and lights and stage the show themselves, Kimball says.

“Rita and I are on the front row during the show,” she says. “Nobody is backstage but the sixth-graders.”

The plots revolve around topics important to kids, Kimball says. Previous classes wrote about peer pressure, blended families and discrimination.

“Students write about things that are important to them,” Kimball says. “Kids write for kids, and they write in the present day.”

Opera classes at Lakewood started April 25 and end with performances May 5 & 6. At press time, Kimball was unable to reveal any details about the show.

“We don’t have a title for the production,” she says. “We don’t have a story because it hasn’t been written yet.”

Lakewood Elementary’s sixth-grade class will perform its opera at 7:30 p.m. May 5 and 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. May 6 at the school, 3000 Hillbrook St. Performances are free and open to the public. For information, call the school at 972-749-7300.

Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.

About the Author: