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Students take charge of opera

Jun 18, 2018 12:53PM ● Published by Jet Burnham

As groups, students discuss their actions and consider what their characters would react. Addison Goff created his own evil laugh for his evil poacher character. (Cecilia Jabakumar/Arcadia Elementary)

By Jet Burnham | j.burnham@mycityjournals.com 

Pandas were poisoned and dinosaurs popped the moon in the two operas written and performed by first- and third-graders at Arcadia Elementary. The imaginative students created every aspect of their operas, with support from Opera by Children (through Utah State University) and their teachers, Kathy Godfrey and Caryn Johnson. 

“I think what was cool is that the students got to think of all of the things about the opera,” said first-grader Winnie Harding. 

Her class wrote their opera about the moon getting too close to the earth, putting everyone in danger of being squished. “How the Moon Was Falling” was inspired by the solar eclipse that took place on the first day of school and the first-grade curriculum topic of celestial movements in the sky, said Johnson. 

Godfrey’s third-grade class began the year learning about endangered species, which inspired their story, “The Amazing Panda Rescue.” 

Both classes spent most of the year writing the libretto—the storyline and dialogue for their operas. Students discussed, suggested and voted on each part of the opera, including characters, costumes, staging and scenery. 

Aaron Sanchez, a third-grader, said the opera turned out better with everyone contributing than what one person could have produced on his or her own. They did bring their own individual ideas to their characters. Addison Goff, who played a poacher, created his own evil laugh. Throughout the year, students would get ideas to add to the performance. 

“They’re totally absorbed in it,” said Godfrey, who participated in the program with first-graders last year. “It’s easier for them to take ownership as third-graders.” 

Johnson has been participating in the program for five years. She said first-graders do a great job collaborating. She helps them focus their imaginative energy to create something together. Johnson implements popular votes and piggybacking ideas to be sure to include everyone’s ideas. 

Every student also contributed to the musical score. 

A music mentor from Opera by Children recorded students’ ideas for the score. She asked them to hum or sing a few lines of what they thought the music should sound like in a specific part of the story. 

“She will spend time with each child,” said Godfrey. “She will take those recordings of every single student and score the opera. What we get back is amazing.” 

The children’s tunes are pieced together with an accompaniment and put on a CD for the final score. Aaron said he was surprised how much he likes to sing the songs with his class.

“They keep getting in my head,” he said. 

Johnson said the kids learn the songs very quickly.

“I’m always amazed at how they always want to sing it—they never seem to tire of it,” she said. “I think it’s because they created it themselves, and it’s theirs.” 

Students are also in charge of costumes, with support from parent volunteers. Three parents presented the first-graders with ideas for simple costumes that the kids could make themselves. They loved the headbands for the pets, and they had fuzzy ears for the cats and dogs. For the snakes, they had a long foam tongue. Students designed and painted the scenery. 

Denise Razo, a third-grader, said parent volunteers and program mentors taught them techniques to give a three-dimensional look to the bamboo forest.

“I’m proud of the painting; it actually turned out really good,” she said.

For the first two years with the program, teachers are eligible for support from program mentors. After that, they rely on parent volunteers. Arcadia had the additional resource of a theater Beverly Taylors Sorenson Arts Specialist on site. Maren Holmes helped both classes with staging, props and refining performance skills. 

“We don’t get enough fine arts anymore,” said Godfrey. “So to be able to integrate this with our core objectives and have them be able to create something so original is just really wonderful.” 

The students were thrilled to perform their final 10-minute operas for parents and other students. 

“It’s mostly fun but kind of hard and kind of scary,” said Winnie.

Education, Today

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