by Barbara Jöstlein Currie, hornist
Week One: Auditions. Assignments. Designate theme. Practice staged reading of The Threepenny Opera for acting coaching. Write libretto.
Week Two: Finish libretto. Rough staging of entire opera. Marketing.
Week Three: Tech rehearsals. Four dress rehearsals. Run-throughs before each performance. Four performances (two per day).
Producing opera, especially with limited time and a tight budget, is grueling work.
In light of that, one might be surprised to learn that the above was a public school project, completed in early May by a seventh grade class less than a mile south of the Met, in Battery Park City. The school, IS 289, otherwise known as Hudson River Middle School, calls their opera company the Hudson River Opera Company.
These students have had no formal training in the arts. This is not an elite performing arts school, just a regular, run-of-the-mill school with a not so run-of-the-mill opera program. Every year, the entire seventh grade class, consisting of approximately 95 students, spends three weeks creating an opera from scratch. They come up with a theme that is socially relevant. They are assigned to different jobs, which parallel jobs one sees in professional opera companies: not just singers, stagehands, and orchestra members (who both compose and perform), but electricians, a marketing team, set designers, stage managers, lighting designers, and makeup and costume artists.
These kids take their jobs seriously. So seriously that they almost become those people for three weeks. If something isn't working, the teachers tell the students to talk with the person whose job it is to find a solution. The teachers are as hands-off as possible.
All of this is made possible by a supportive faculty and administration, and spearheaded for the last 10 years by history teacher Marc Todd. Marc’s affinity for opera began when he took a class at the Met during the summer of 2005.
Also lending a hand every year is Gordon Ostrowski, who has been the assistant dean of opera studies at the Manhattan School of Music for 25 years. I interviewed Gordon after the last performance:
"This experience is totally immersive for the student. It transforms them. For many of the students, this is the first thing they've really had to own."
When asked what he gets out of this, he says, "When you change someone, they're changed forever. And it's not just the performers. It's the kids doing makeup, costumes, and everything else. When students come back to the school for visits, they often say that this was the most memorable part of school. They deal with real life issues and it becomes their work, their responsibility. They learn to respect each other's work. It’s transformative.”