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School Operas Let Students Share Spotlight

Potomac and Beverly Farms use Creating Opera curriculum.

Every year when she prepares fourth quarter report cards, Potomac Elementary third grade teacher Trisha Boswell asks her students to write what they feel is the most important thing they learned that year.

“Last year every single one of my students, every one of them, wrote the opera,” Boswell said. “I think that was just like a guarantee that that program was worthwhile.”

“The opera” is an original production, entirely written, composed, and managed by Potomac Elementary third-graders in a year-long curriculum originated by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, a programming and education arm of New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

At the beginning of the school year, students pick among nearly a dozen opera jobs — performer, stage manager, costume designer, carpenter, electrician, public relations officer, and so on. The students collaboratively come up with a theme and a thesis for the script and begin developing the production, devoting more and more time leading up to performances in May.

Teachers at Potomac Elementary and at Beverly Farms Elementary, which also employs the Creating Original Opera curriculum, say that the program teaches responsibility and cooperation and brings out talents that otherwise go unrecognized.

Students in the program say the same thing.

“If you really like doing something and you’re too scared to tell it because it’s kind of a little weird, you can tell it to people. You can show your feelings in the opera program,” said Eric Brodkowitz, a stage manager in the Beverly Farms production.

“It does teach us to work together. With our jobs we work in groups and I think that really prepares us for when we’re grown up and we’re going to have to deal with people that we like and people that we don’t like,” said Tiffany Keung, a performer at Beverly Farms. “It does prepare us.”

THE PROGRAM — currently in place at eight schools in Montgomery County — can be adapted to different grade levels and class sizes.

At Potomac, the entire third grade participates, while at Beverly Farms, the program draws in one classroom of fifth graders.

Whatever the structure, teachers take a hands-off approach. The opera program is the antithesis of the elementary school plays of many adults’ memory, where parents sew the costumes and whisper lines from the wings.

“They own the program. It’s ownership and it’s responsibility and they get out of here and they know there’s nobody to do it, and they have deadlines to meet,” said Valia Vassila, the music teacher who has overseen the opera at Beverly Farms for seven years.

Vassila recalled reminding the public relations group that they needed to send out invitations to parents and other guests, including local politicians. The students missed the deadline Vassila had set and continued to drag their feet until an invitation from one of the other opera schools arrived. At 8 a.m., the students insisted that Vassila give them time to finish the invitations that day. Lesson learned.

Boswell offered the most concrete evidence: “You’ll see us on opening night — the whole thing we always say, ‘We don’t do it, the kids do it.’ And we’ll just be sitting there. We don’t do a thing. … We’ll just sit there. The kids have taken care of everything. And that shows that we’ve done a good job.”

Boswell admitted that over the school year, not doing anything does amount to a lot of work. Every teacher that uses the curriculum goes through a week-long training program, and opera class sessions, which have groups spread out in four or five different classroom spaces, draw in several teachers and parent volunteers.

“The teachers are some of the most dedicated teachers I’ve ever seen,” said Caryn Fraim, education and community programs associate at the Washington National Opera, which collaborates with the schools during the program year, consulting with the teachers and hosting the students on field trips to learn about costuming, set design and public relations.

THE STUDENTS’ WORK includes composing music and even underscoring dialogue, wiring light boards, and documenting the history and milestones of the opera company.

Both schools will perform their operas May 25 and 26, with daytime performances for students and evening performances for adults.

Potomac’s opera centers on two groups of young artists at sleep-away camp that come up with the same idea for their entries in a sculpture contest.

The Beverly Farms Opera follows five friends competing for Hollywood fame in a talent contest.

All the performances are free, but for the fourth year, Beverly Farms is collecting donations for charity in conjunction with the opera. This year’s recipient is the Stepping Stones Shelter in Rockville. The opera group raised more than $1,000 last year.