When Jadah Clarke and Elizabeth Zetlin first sat down together to choreograph a dance for their upcoming opera performance they were a little unsure of where to begin. With just under two months to prepare they had to work quickly. The Claremont Elementary School third-grade duo, though, managed to pull it off like old professionals.
THIS SATURDAY, after hours of preparation, they will finally get to show off their dance before a live audience. Along with 33 other members of the Arlington-based Children’s Spanish Chorus, Clarke and Zetlin will perform an opera production of “El Sombrero Magico” (The Magic Hat) at Gunston Community Center.
Clarke, who plays a caracol — Spanish for snail — in the choreographed scene has other roles in the opera but is most excited about the dance she worked on with Zetlin. “I like the design and how it looks like watercolor,” she said of her costume.
“I’m excited about the music. It’s really fun to dance to,” Zetlin said of the piano accompaniment that will play in the background.
Directed by retired Arlington Public Schools music teacher Cora Lee Khambatta, the bilingual Chorus has put on many performances, but never done an opera before this year. “It’s a support for kids who are Spanish speaking who are struggling to have other people recognize their culture and for kids learning Spanish,” Khambatta said of the Chorus. She started the after-school program while working in Arlington because so many of her students spoke Spanish.
Khambatta, with the help of St. Agnes Catholic School music teacher Maritza Sadowsky, and the Opera Guild of Northern Virginia, put “El Sombrero Magico” together in less than two months.
The project began to take shape when Miriam Miller, a member of the Guild, pitched the idea of a children’s opera to Khambatta and Sadowsky this spring. “I kept wanting an opera for children by children,” Miller said.
The Opera Guild puts on several shows a year, and one is a children’s opera, but according to Miller the performers are mainly adults. Wanting to try something new, she spoke to the two teachers, both winners of the Guild’s Music Educator of the Year award. She explained her vision for the children’s opera. “I want it so when people come out of the theater they will say 'what are you going to do next,'” she said. With some money and encouragement from the Guild, Khambatta and Sadowsky went to work.
USING SONGS that the Chorus members had been singing all year, Khambatta and others wrote a plot line, or libretto for the opera in just a few weeks. “In the field of opera you have comic operas and many other different types,” Sadowsky explained. “We may be premiering something new that has never been done before which is to write a script around music, instead of the other way around,” she said.
In addition, the Chorus is relying on Arlington County Schools for practice space and parent volunteers to prepare for Saturday’s performance. Sylvia Dohrmann, whose daughter Zoe is in the show, coordinated all the costumes. “There’s so many little characters and some of them are only on stage for a few minutes,” she said.
Along with other parents, she worked quickly to piece together all the different costumes. “You try to keep it in perspective and not spend a million dollars on beautiful costumes when really you can save money,” Dohrmann said.
Clarke’s snail costume was one of many that took a little creative thinking. “I bought two embroidery hoops and laid out the fabric,” Dohrmann said. “I put the embroidery hoops on and sandwiched them together and stuffed them with plastic grocery bags.” Then, to add the finishing touches she drew a snail-like spiral on the outside with a Sharpie pen. She said that they are still putting the final touches on some costumes.
“El Sombrero Magico” chronicles a young girl named Milagros’ search for her missing hat. She believes that the hat has magical powers that help her sing well. Along her journey for the hat, she meets many different animals who try to help her out. But in the end, as she dances and sings without the hat, she discovers that her talent comes from within.
One of the bigger roles is played by the wolf, fifth-grader Christian Gonzales. “I am most excited to see the crowd’s reaction and if they are going to laugh,” he said. In order to learn his role he imagined what his character would look like and what he might do in certain situations. “I tried to make him kind of funny and scary,” Gonzales said after taking off his small, plastic strap-on wolf nose. “I had in mind the coyote and roadrunner from Looney Tunes.”
IN ADDITION to acting and singing, some members of the Chorus will be playing musical instruments. “I do the drumming parts,” said Christian’s younger brother Justin. One of his favorite parts is when he begins drumming in the opening scene as Milagros enters. “I like it because I like hearing the beats,” he added.
After two months of work, Khambatta, parent volunteers, and the children are eagerly anticipating Saturday’s performance. “I just want them to enjoy themselves and socialize and interact with other kids,” Khambatta said. “I think it’s great because they are going to be shining out there,” Dohrmann added.
When Clarke and Zetlin take the stage right before intermission for their caracol dance, with Sadowsky providing the piano accompaniment, they will get the chance to show off their choreography. Said Clarke with a smile: “It is a really special dance. I really like the costume, and I can’t wait to do it.”