OAKLAND -- Thornhill Elementary School students staged a series of lighthearted mini-operas June 6 in the school auditorium in conjunction with San Francisco Opera's ARIA (Arts Resources in Action) program.
The performances took some parents by surprise.
"It was beautiful, I just started crying," said April Garcia, whose 9-year-old son, Julian, played a miner in the fourth-graders' operatic interpretation of the kids' book "Gold Fever." "I came for a minute and just couldn't leave; all the kids worked so hard for weeks preparing and practicing -- they even helped make the props."
Leah Goldberg, whose fourth-grade son, Ari, played Mr. Hooper in "Nine for California," a book about the Gold Rush, said, "I think they're amazing; this is an invaluable program with San Francisco Opera. It also ties in with what they're learning in the classroom this year about California history."
Kindergarten teacher Richard Thompson is the school's liaison with San Francisco Opera's ARIA program, which is now in its fourth year at Thornhill. The opera takes ARIA into schools all over the Bay Area.
"It's a great way to introduce kids at a young age not just to opera and singing, but to the art of storytelling," Thompson said. "It also dovetails with English language arts in the classroom -- it's an incredible resource for the Bay Area community."
San Francisco Opera's Hector Armienta, a composer and artistic director who accompanied the young opera singers on piano at the June 6 recital, worked with Thornhill students over the past 18 weeks.
The opera even sent a production artist and a crew to advise and help build scenery and props. Some of the older students became directors, writers and composers. Even the kindergartners were given some artistic license.
"We let them choose the story and the music -- we guide them at this age, but we try to honor their direction and creativity as much as possible," Thompson said.
The kindergarten class opted for Mo Willems' comic "That is Not a Good Idea" for its operatic debut. They were obviously having a blast onstage, dressed up as ducks, bears, squirrels and raccoons, while fending off the wily fox.
The first- and second-graders pooled their talents in "The Frog Princess" based on a Tlingit legend from Alaska by Eric A. Kimmel. Charlotte Fithian and Alula Alemseged were sweet and charming as the Frog Princess and Prince on duets such as "You're handsome," "You're Pretty," "I wish we could be together," while the chorus of frogs chimed in, "We give to you our blessings, have a happy life."
Fourth-grader Edie Schweigerdt, one of the set directors for "Gold Fever," said she liked that their mini-opera was a class effort.
"The whole class wrote it and the arias too," Schweigerdt said. "I like that I got to help write it -- it was really fun."
Emilia Buckner, who played the part of a miner in "Gold Fever," said she enjoyed having both of her parents involved with the program.
"My dad is a handyman, so he probably helped out with a lot of stuff," Buckner said.
After the show, the fourth-graders got an extra treat when they met "Gold Fever" author Verla Kay, who came to see the show when she heard the children's mini-opera was based on her book. She chatted with students about the book and how she came to be a writer of children's literature.
"I hated to write when I was in school -- I always had to write it over and over again," said Kay, who brought bookmarks for the kids and donated a copy of "Gold Fever" to the class. "I didn't know then that's what good writers do to get it right."
One student asked Kay, who has published 11 children's books, if she ever wrote for adults.
"No," she said. "I don't write for adults -- it's too easy.
"It's harder to write for children. It's tough to be a writer, but so rewarding."
Fourth-grader Anais Reiss, another gold miner, said it's fun to be an actor and singer too.
"It was fun writing and performing the opera -- and getting to meet the author of the book too," Reiss said.
In true operatic style, the mini-opera performances closed with thank yous and the presentation of bouquets of flowers to "awesome composer" Hector Armienta, "visiting author" Verla Kay and a special thank you to ARIA classroom lead parent Jennifer Russ.