When fifth-graders at a St. Paul school created their own opera, they weren’t just making music; they were exploring the history of their people
By MATT PEIKEN
St. Paul Pioneer Press, Feb. 11, 2002©
The fifth-graders of Linwood A+ Elementary School are on stage, running through a patriotic song they wrote called “America” but singing as if this is the last thing on their minds.
In a performance the night before for parents and other family members, everything came together like magic. The quietest kids spoke their lines louder than ever. Songs came off without a missed beat.
This morning, an hour before their scheduled performance for the rest of the school, everything’s a big mess. Apparently, one girl in the class didn’t want another girl hanging out in her group at recess, so she started her own group. Something like that.
A teacher caught wind of it, and now some of the kids are bubbling with gossip. Some are going to get suspended. Some won’t get to perform this morning. It’s the ultimate fifth-grade crisis.
Ed Williams, the show’s director, steps into the cafeteria, which houses Linwood’s stage, and cuts off the rehearsal midsong.
“I’m very close to canceling this performance,” he tells the kids.
Some gasp. Most have no clue where all this is coming from. Williams lets the gravity of it all sink in. Nobody’s getting suspended, he tells them. Nobody’s kicked out of the musical.
“But this isn’t the kind of school where some students leave out other students,” Williams tells them. “Some of you need to think about the way you’ve been treating your fellow classmates, and you all need to find a way to come together as a class again. That’s what makes you guys and this school so special.”
Linwood is within walking distance of Grand Avenue’s shopping stops, but it’s a public school attracting students from all over St. Paul, across the economic and ethnic spectrums. It’s one of the few schools anywhere dedicated to the A+ model — arts plus academics.
It’s impossible to roam the halls of Linwood and not sense, through one’s eyes and ears, how the arts penetrate the school’s social and academic fabric. While budget-crunched schools throughout Minnesota are trimming or eliminating arts programs, A+ schools weave the arts through every course of study.
Linwood’s fifth-graders spent the three weeks before Christmas break writing songs, dreaming up story lines and building sets under the guidance of a Minnesota Opera arts-in-schools program called Opera Ventures.
The school’s fourth- and sixth-graders are also writing and staging their own “operas” this year, all tying into the school’s curriculum on immigration. Every class at Linwood hosts at least one resident artist every school year.
“Unless you’ve been affected — infected — with what the arts can do, you can be removed from how strongly they affect the entire educational experience,” says Mary Harty, Linwood’s principal. “Every parent here would testify that this pumps life into their children. When they do these operas, you know these kids will remember these songs when they’re 80.”
With kids and teachers from every grade piled on the cafeteria floor in front of the stage, Williams steps behind the curtain for a last word with his performers.
“What everyone needs to do right now is let out a deep breath and find their happy place, just like the commercial,” he says. “This is a really touching show, and that’s what we need to deliver. Think about all the hard work we’ve done, and it all comes down to now.”
BLOSSOMING BEHIND THE SCENES
A fifth-grader named Robert rushes up to Williams and wraps his arms around Williams’ waist like a koala hugging a tree. Williams is about to start the morning’s 2½- hour session.
“Hey, buddy,” he says, looking down at Robert and patting the boy’s shoulder. “Let’s all sit down, OK? We have a busy, busy morning ahead of us.”
Robert won’t let go of the bear hug, instead smiling, looking up at Williams and squeezing just a bit tighter.
Williams, who taught at Linwood for several years, taught Robert’s second-grade class, and the boy struck him as “a very gentle, almost fragile soul.”
Robert and his younger brother, Devonte, were born a year apart to different fathers, neither of whom is in the boys’ lives. Their mother, Carla, was still a teen-ager when she had her sons. To this day, she doesn’t quite know how she managed the early years of motherhood on a combination of hit-and-miss work and public assistance.
When Williams learned more about the boys’ situation, he felt compelled to spend time with them outside of school. For the past three summers, Williams has spent a day or two every week taking Robert and Devonte to the library, a children’s museum, parks, the movies. Williams won’t call himself a father figure to the boys, but Carla embraces the description.
“He showed them what the arts are, and honestly, he showed me,” Carla says. “I used to think the arts were this extra thing when it comes to school, but really, I see how it all goes together. The boys do more things now, things they never would have even thought of before Ed came into the picture, and they have more interests now than just PlayStation.”
Robert chose to work as a technician for this Opera Ventures production, and he thrived in the solitude of painting and drawing stage scenery. On this particular morning, he spends more than hour in silence, his large brown eyes rarely leaving the sheet of polished white paper as he colors a map of the world. His left hand sketches the silhouette of Europe, then the Americas, leaving a vast ocean of space between them.
It’s surprising how many Linwood fifth-graders chose to work behind the scenes for this production, but it’s all the more unexpected with Robert. Working as a technician, he knows, takes him away from Williams, who spends most of his time with the students charged with writing and performing.
Carla sees Robert’s choice as a technician as a sign that her eldest son is developing the comfort and confidence to find his own way.
“Going to this school, it opens them up to all the things they can do,” Carla says.
SERVING HER PEOPLE
The theme of this Opera Ventures production is immigration. When Linwood’s fifth-graders started writing their show, a Hmong girl named Kia saw it as more than something fun. It was a chance to start fulfilling her destiny.
For the scene depicting a Hmong family’s exile from Laos, Kia came up with almost every line of dialogue and song, and it was her idea to depict a family fleeing from soldiers, forced to abandon a daughter wounded by gunfire.
“I knew in my heart this really happened and people were left behind,” Kia says. “I wanted to show that I care about these people and their spirits, wherever they are.”
Kia isn’t like most other girls her age. Her thoughts and ideas are more complex than those of an average 10-year-old, and while most Hmong youth tend to cluster among themselves, Kia’s happy and outgoing nature knocks down any social barrier.
While writing the scene from Laos, a girl in Kia’s group slumps against a wall, saying “It’s too hard.” Kia shoots her a stern look and points a finger in her direction.
“Never, never say that in front of me,” she says.
Kia wears a necklace with clear plastic beads and a gold-colored pendant in the shape of a heart. Inside the heart is a picture of two Buddhas that, Kia says, helped Hmong people overcome prejudice in Thailand. She wears the necklace always, as a good-luck charm.
“A lot of people say they aren’t racist, but I still think they are sometimes, just because of how they act,” she says. “Sometimes I think I’ll be like Martin Luther King someday and help people understand racism.”
Kia was born in Thailand in 1991, the year her family came to America. Most American fifth-graders take for granted the things Kia isn’t allowed to do — sleepovers at friends’ houses or watching movies such as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Kia understands the Hmong traditions behind these parental edicts, and she neither laments nor embraces them.
Through dance, music and theater, Kia says, she has learned to lean on her imagination. At her most vulnerable moments, her mind conjures an image of a dragon, and Kia draws on its power and ferocity to overcome her greatest fears and obstacles.
“Sometimes my brothers and sisters say I’m crazy — even my classmates say I am — but I don’t care, because I have more important things to think about,” she says. “My brothers and sisters say ‘What makes you think you can do all these things?’ But my mom says ‘Don’t listen to them. Just listen to your heart.’ ”
MORE THAN ENTERTAINMENT
Opera Ventures directors — professional artists and technicians — want to guide the kids and give them choices without stripping them of creative control.
Students usually come up with their own Opera Ventures themes, but every show at Linwood this year connects to the school’s classwork on immigration.
Some fifth-graders grumbled about doing something “so serious,” as one put it, but others liked the idea of building a show about their families’ migrations to America.
As the students played out these tales of immigration, the boys, in particular, found ways to be boys, delighting in developing war scenes. That didn’t surprise music director Ray Berg, who has worked with roughly 40 Opera Ventures productions over nine years.
“The girls will invent characters that want relationships, and the boys want characters that destroy things,” he says.
After the first week of writing, Williams wonders how he can rein in these students and their developing story.
“Tuesday was about war. Yesterday was about death and dying,” he tells them. “We want to reflect the sadness and challenges of immigrating, but also the joy.”
A student named Glenn raises his hand.
“This is a fifth-grade opera, not a PG-13 movie,” he says.
“Well, yes, there will be violence,” Williams says. “But we want to do it tastefully.”
“But this is opera,” a girl named Patty says. “Everyone always ends up stabbing each other.”
At one point, students chuckle while writing a scene involving the auctioning of slaves. A fifth-grader named Josh stands up and silences his classmates.
“This isn’t funny,” he tells them. “This really happened, and it’s not something to laugh about.”
“You’re right, Josh, and that brings up a good point,” Williams says. “This isn’t our cute little fun, fantasy world. These things actually happened, and they’re uncomfortable to watch and to perform. That’s going to be a big challenge for this story, to give it that reality.”
In the end, the fifth-graders wind up with a 35-minute show that’s true to history in broad brushstrokes.
The scene rooted in Africa shows slaves on a boat heading toward America, confident they will someday be free. Kids portraying an Irish family sing about leaving “the harsh potato famine” in “the land of the Leprechauns” for peace and liberty. A Russian family escapes its war-torn country to land, like the Irish family, on New York’s Ellis Island with suitcases full of hope. A couple from El Salvador survive a revolutionary war in their homeland, reuniting in Los Angeles.
The show has a dramatic arc, from chaotic and funny to plaintive and thoughtful to upbeat and hopeful. It ends with a patriotic hymn called “America,” written like every other song in the show, line by line, by a small team of students working with Berg in front of a piano.
“We should publish these songs,” a boy named Danny says. “They’ll be worth millions.”
It’s not clear whether the show’s deeper messages connected with audiences — parents and family in one evening, fellow classmates the morning after. But for these fifth-graders, the show was more than a history lesson embedded in song. It cemented the place and value of the arts, in expressing thoughts, shaping ideas and making sense of the world around them.
“I want to be a soldier, like my dad, but I could be a musician, too,” says John, whose parents came from El Salvador. “I just want to learn more and more and more, about everything.”