300 Kids Create an Opera

Hillhurst School’s Doppel

By Maureen McNamee

The argument started over a game of kickball on the school playground. Two popular kids, Nick and Laura, were declared captains and took turns choosing players. When the teams were complete, the unchosen remained on the sidelines feeling left out. They protested the unfairness, some words were exchanged and one frustrated kid, Oscar, kicked the ball out of bounds.

The scene was a typical recess—except that it played out on a small stage in a crowded gymnasium at Hillhurst School in the spring of 2016. This was the “world premiere” of the school’s opera, Doppel, an original production developed through Calgary Opera’s Let’s Create an Opera program. Students learned how to develop a story idea and write music to go with it. They learned how to sing and act onstage. They learned how to design costumes and sets. They learned how to deliver a message through performance.

But the experience taught them much more than that. From the very beginning, the opera provided a lesson about the meaning of inclusion.

Inclusion is essential to public education at an individual, school and system level, but it doesn’t come easily. Classrooms have students with different needs, abilities and personalities who come from different cultures and backgrounds. In newer neighbourhoods, schools have more would-be students than space, so district boundaries determine who can attend and who will be bussed elsewhere. Some alternative programs, such as science, have more applicants than spaces, meaning some students will be excluded. Or, in my family’s experience, efforts to keep an inner-city school open results in two separate programs sharing one building.

We sent our sons to Stanley Jones, a public elementary school just a few blocks from our home. The school had faced declining enrolment, but attracted new students by adding an all-girls school for Grades 4 to 9. Alice Jamieson Girls Academy occupies classrooms on the upper level of the historic sandstone building. Students wear uniforms and have different recess and lunch times.

The girls academy helped keep the school open, but not without consequences. Most girls leave Stanley Jones after Grade 3 and head upstairs to attend Alice Jamieson, which offers extra opportunities. Left behind are classrooms of boys with only a few girls. Our oldest, Dexter, is a sensitive child with his own way of looking at the world—we were wary of having him in a de facto boys school. Following the advice of school staff, he left Stanley Jones at the end of Grade 3 after being accepted into the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program for Grades 4 to 6 at Hillhurst School, which we hoped would be a better fit. Now we were in a separate program housed in a community school. Hillhurst, another historic sandstone school, had boosted its enrolment by providing a home for GATE. Much like at Stanley Jones, the GATE classrooms were located on the top floors while most of the others were found below.

During Dex’s first year, conflicts arose between kids from the different programs. One day Dex told me he and some classmates had a playground skirmish with some community students. He referred to them as “normals.” I asked, “If you call them normals, what do they call you?” He didn’t know.

This divide didn’t go unnoticed by the principal, David Ball, who had also started that fall. When Dex returned for his second year, the classrooms had been rearranged so there was less of a barrier between GATE and community students. The next fall, when Jared arrived for Grade 4 and Dex entered Grade 6, the school year started with students from both programs going on team-building field trips. At parent council meetings, the principal talked about Hillhurst being one united school community and said teachers would continue to bring students together to focus on inclusion rather than differences. Teachers had already reported improved communication and interaction across the GATE and regular classrooms—and reduced conflicts at recess.

The idea of creating an opera took that effort one step further. Students from different grades and both programs would join work committees responsible for different tasks. Monthly messages from the principal in school newsletters chronicled the opera’s progress, beginning with the announcement in September:

The seeds of our opera are being planted this week with classroom discussions with our librettist (a person who writes opera plots). Kids have been excitedly sharing ideas about story ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, and it will be Aaron Coates’s job to sort through them all for a storyline. He will then revisit classes to develop the basic structure with their input. He reports our students are very creative and energetic—no surprises there. He will prepare the libretto and present it to the school in November.

The next stage will involve a similar process, with our composer joining classes and having students co-create our music and lyrics. Then our director joins us in the new year to make it all start to come to life. Students will have opportunities to sing, act, design costumes and sets, and participate in the technical aspects.

Our house was filled with stories surrounding the opera. We heard how Jared’s class had provided ideas for the storyline and suggested names for characters, and that he’d be on the props committee. We heard how Dex helped compose a section of the music and would be painting backdrops on a committee including his Grade 2 buddy. A highlight came near the end of November, when students were offered tickets to a dress rehearsal of Calgary Opera’s production of Lakmé. One adult from each family was also invited and my husband got the honour. I was confident the novelty would wear off by intermission and they would be home by bedtime. Instead, my husband texted to say the boys wanted to see the ending—they loved it.

Of course, the opera wasn’t the only thing happening at school. The October newsletter provided a glimpse of what schools deal with regularly, when the principal wrote about a shoving match at the end of recess:

One of the participants was a “good kid” with many friends who sometimes made poor choices. The other has a growing reputation among some students and adults of being “that kid” who is always in trouble or looking for a fight. After collecting the facts, yes, “that kid” took their 4-square ball and threw it over the fence. The “good kid” took exception and gave him a shove. “That kid” responded with greater anger until an adult quickly intervened. Apologies were offered and accepted. Natural consequences were mutually decided. That could have been the end of the story.

I kept “that kid” back to try to understand why. I learned a little more. He hadn’t had breakfast. He didn’t have lunch. He’s never played 4-square. He doesn’t feel anybody likes him. He doesn’t know how to become involved in a game when he thinks he’s unwelcome. He was mad. Then… he cried. This is now a different story. The new factors do not excuse actions, but they help understand their source.

Our job is to help “that kid” learn a better way…. As adults, ultimately, we are outsiders to their world, but we have influence on them. And they will become adults whose social skills were partially defined on playgrounds at recess.

A  few weeks later, at a school assembly, students learned the opera would be called Doppel. “Its theme is inclusivity based on a plot in which some kids prone to excluding others find themselves in an alternative world where everyone has a twin (doppelganger) and they are the ones excluded,” wrote Ball in the November newsletter. “It will be fun.”

At one point, staff briefly considered limiting individual roles to students in Grades 4 to 6, but decided against it. As Ball pointed out, you can’t have an opera about inclusion that excludes half the school. There would also be a Thursday cast and a Friday cast, which would not only allow more students to take on main roles, but also give more people a chance to attend performances in the small gym.

After the winter break the next big event was auditions for the main roles. Drama classes had shown us that Dex thrives in the spotlight. He decided to audition for Quelly, leader of the rebel solos who don’t have doppelgangers. Jared prefers to blend in—he joined the chorus of trees. The day the posters went up announcing the results, we were anxious. We knew it would be a big confidence boost for Dex to be chosen, and we knew he would be heartbroken if he wasn’t. Jared proudly blurted out the good news as he stepped off the bus ahead of his big brother. Landing the part of Quelly was the highlight of Dex’s three years at Hillhurst—he enjoyed rehearsals and was soon calling his Thursday castmates “my opera peeps.” Of course, not every kid who auditioned got a part—inclusion for Dex meant exclusion for others.

Meanwhile, the Calgary Board of Education was also focused on inclusion as Syrian refugees arrived and the province implemented new guidelines for transgender students, which was the topic of the principal’s message in the February newsletter:

Welcoming new Canadians is a process public schools excel at. They are Syrian now, but we have had waves of immigrants become part of our social fabric since people inhabited our land. Many groups have come to Canada over generations with the hope of leaving their troubles behind, but we know they often bring issues and challenges of their own, from language acquisition to wondering if they will have friends. Canada is a very different place than most immigrants’ home countries, and it is often a difficult transition…

On a very different issue, our provincial government recently released guidelines for schools to follow regarding LGBTQ and gender diversity issues. Sexual orientation and gender identity are intensely personal topics that educators need to be prepared to discuss, if and when particular students need our support…. We did not need guidelines to tell us that every child needs an adult in our school with whom they have confidence to share their personal troubles and tribulations. We did not need guidelines to tell us that homophobic language or bullying based on gender identity or sexual orientation will not be tolerated. But the guidelines will definitely support educators if we face external pressure to do otherwise than support a child facing adversity.

That winter saw a lot of humming and singing at our house. All students were busy practising songs and working on tasks. Jared’s committee was making a kickball and other props out of papier-mâché, much to his disappointment—he would have preferred a real ball and real torches with real fire. Dex’s committee was painting backdrops, and we were entertained by stories about the antics of his Grade 2 buddy, who painted his mushrooms upside down.

When the students returned from spring break, work on the opera ramped up. Dexter was spending more and more time in rehearsals, and loving it. For Jared the experience was starting to wear thin—he complained that the opera had taken over the gym and he wanted it back. Fortunately, good weather allowed students to spend more time outdoors. The performances were scheduled for April 28 and 29, with afternoon and evening shows. As the days counted down, the principal’s message reflected on the process leading up to the opera:

Very early in the brainstorming process, a theme of inclusion was suggested as representative of the work of our school and community. We tried to continue brainstorming, but like a lightning rod, all the ideas kept coming back to how inclusiveness is so relevant to our work at Hillhurst in particular and in public education generally. Indeed, it is the continuing work of our province and country.

…The story of a world in which some leader students were excluding peers, as part of a kickball routine for picking teams, quickly connected with students. The alternative world of Doppel was created where everyone was expected to be exactly like someone else, and conversely, individuals were not only outcasts but criminals. The protagonists not only had to fight to be allowed to be individuals, but through the opera they also came to understand that everyone else also has greatness in their differences and that similarities can sometimes be limiting for us. It is a great message for young people as they learn to navigate the tensions between socially fitting in while trying to be themselves.

The big day arrived. Backstage, students were excited and nervous but also focused. Those with main roles went through costume and makeup. Dex and most of the residents of Doppel were covered in a mixture of cocoa powder and charcoal to make them look dirty, although they smelled delicious. In comparison the queens were squeaky clean, with matching Cinderella-style white dresses, and the cops wore crisp black jackets, sunglasses and moustaches. The other performers waited in the classrooms until it was time to appear onstage. As part of the tree chorus, Jared wore a green and brown tie-dyed shirt, tree-trunk brown pants and a head wreath of branches with leaves. Just before the show started, the student musicians took their places at xylophones and boomwhackers, or tuned their ukuleles. All the students were well rehearsed and knew their cues—even the two kindergartners who decided en route to the gym that they did have to go to the bathroom after all didn’t hold things up.

I found my chair in the gym, which was packed with rows of parents and grandparents. Principal Ball took the stage for a brief introduction before the debut of Doppel began. And it was impressive.

As Oscar kicks the ball out of bounds, a chorus of voices sings “Oscar, nooooooo!” The ball disappears down a well and Nick and Laura fall after it. The painted backdrop of green grass and sunny skies is replaced with one of dirt and mushrooms for the underground world of Doppel. Four identical queens rule the land here—doppels are citizens and solos are outcasts. Laura is taken prisoner, while Nick escapes and ends up with the solos. Quelly, leader of the solos, leads a rebellion to the queens’ castle. Laura, who has broken out of prison, suddenly shows up. Reunited, Nick and Laura sing a duet to convince the doppels and the solos that there is no need to fight: “When you push each other apart, you close off a piece of your heart. When you pull a person to you, you open the way to let love through.” The doppels and solos realize the error of their ways and decide to live in harmony. Nick and Laura have also learned a lesson—when they emerge from the well, everybody is invited to play kickball.

Like all operas, all of the lines were sung, but the singing was more like a musical—no tenors here. Some wide-eyed students were obviously nervous, but the singing was strong and confident. The story itself was sometimes strange and often funny—in one scene, Nick and Laura communicate in their own secret language, which to the rest was just the word “pineapple” sung over and over again. The numerous backdrops for the different scenes would have been at home in Alice in Wonderland, featuring trees, mushrooms and other objects varying in size, shape and detail, as you would expect from paintings by artists aged 5–12. The resulting impression was of authenticity—it was clear that students had been allowed to express their own ideas and creativity without too much adult interference.

After the second Thursday performance, the boy who played Nick gave a speech: “The opera has brought all of the students together, where we can discover each other’s strengths, appreciate each individual’s differences and learn to respect one another. We learned inclusion is not simply a word from the dictionary or a story to hand in for marking…. Our opera journey of inclusion is far from over, but what we have accomplished together in this short period has made a difference in our lives. Let’s roll up our sleeves and continue this journey with more dedication than ever.”

Hillhurst is fortunate to be able to raise funds for special arts programming such as Let’s Create an Opera, which costs schools between $5,000 and $10,000 (a major sponsor covers the rest), and to have staff willing to support such a massive undertaking. Participation in the arts helps children learn to express themselves, co-operate with others and feel empathy—every student should have such valuable opportunities regardless of their school’s ability to raise money. Ideally, this lesson about the meaning of inclusion should extend beyond the students and the school and the school system to the broader community.

I leave the final word on that to the principal, who reflected on that topic in the newsletter following the opera:

It is easy to discuss positive virtues like citizenship and inclusion, but it is far more difficult to behave in ways that are always inclusive of everyone’s needs. One recess period provides countless opportunities to be inclusive or not. Every piece of school equipment, material and resource is a tool to be used or abused. We are guided by values of respect for each other, our place and ourselves.

The nature of being social animals involves constantly working towards creating community and coaching inclusion and citizenship. We go from one metaphorical game of kickball to the next. The process is imperfect and ongoing. Social learning is often confusing and messy. It is also very rewarding. It is just like creating an opera. When it works, it is beautiful.

Maureen McNamee is an associate editor at Alberta Views.


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