Children Create Opera
“Let Your Character Soar” it says on the front window of The Springs School in East Hampton. And did it ever recently, when one of The East End’s best kept artistic secrets, the Springs School’s annual fourth grade Creating Original Opera Program, was once more on delightful display at East Hampton’s Guild Hall. Anna Rafferty, a writer and lead announcer in the opera (“I speak loud and clear”), says her character started soaring in the first grade when she was chosen to be a narrator in a class play, “The Pet Show.” At Springs School, it’s all about creativity and continuity.
This year’s opera, “Flight of the Fireflies,” coordinated by enrichment teacher Sue Ellen O’Connor, once again showed what motivated youngsters and enthusiastic teachers can achieve. The entire opera – conception, composition (music, lyrics, storyline), design (costumes, make up, sets, shadow dancing, lighting, sound), direction (stage and technical), production (onstage, backstage, ushering), performance (principals and chorus) and promotion (program, commercials, posters) — is the work of the students themselves — with the assistance of professionals Kyril Bromley on piano and John Gibbons on guitar. Every student, from the most outspoken to the most reticent, is encouraged to audition and then sign a contract. This year’s project, the school’s 14th, was put on by The 54 Galore Opera Company, named for the 54 fourth graders involved. Other key adults involved included teachers Eileen Goldman, stage director, Colleen McGowan, artistic director and Margaret Thompson, musical director.
“Flight of the Fireflies” is about four children who live in Springs and who, while pursuing fireflies, get lost on their way home. Frustrated, fearful, dependent on gadgets and missing their parents, they suddenly wander into a fantasy world called The Land Between. It was “a magical place that was not Springs … a place somewhere between the sunrise and the sunset” and a place inhabited by a group of colorful strangers, including a poet and a talking pony, who dwell among tilted mushroom-looking trees and giant flowers (what are rules, what are parents?). Slowly, after a bit of mutual suspicion, the children pair off and start getting to know each other’s ways, as a chorus of deliciously attired fireflies, flitting on and off stage, sings of lessons to be learned. The children from Springs, costumed in black and white, feel lighter, more colorful, as they turn more to nature and imagination. The Land Between folks also come to a new understanding about an “outsider” among them, and about friendship. A climactic moment, full of exemplary charm and humor, occurs during a sleep-in for all, under “the hugging tree.”
One of the perks of the opera program is the opportunity for older students to come back to assist. Tiffany Gutama, a sixth grader, who worked with Sue Ellen O’Connor, says she “learned self-confidence and how to speak in front of hundreds of people” when she participated in the fourth-grade project. Alex Swickard, a fifth grader who was last year’s music and lyrics coordinator, says that before he got involved in 2010’s Fantastic 52 (“maybe 54”), he knew little about opera. His biggest surprise was discovering that “so many people were involved.”
Another surprise was needing to consider and integrate details. For example, with marching music, when the chorus was singing “the brave and the bold,” he had to decide on tempo, register and word emphasis. He also recalls how nervous he was before opening night. “I was in Rowdy Hall, trying to have a cheeseburger and I was just … hyperventilating.” No need for worry. The performance then, like this year’s, “was great.” In fact, he adds, “there’s never been a bad opera.” He ought to know — he’s been attending the operas since kindergarten, a mantle that now passes to his younger sister, Chloe.
And the beat goes on. The entire fourth grade class attended The Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” at Lincoln Center with the support of the school’s PTA.
For further information on the program, e-mail Sue Ellen O’Connor at: firstname.lastname@example.org. #