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St. Vincent DePaul's kindergarteners bloom in opera

Published April 16, 2013 1:50 pm

Stage • Rose's Garden helps plant seeds of creativity in youngsters.
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A class of kindergartners at Saint Vincent de Paul Catholic School had the opportunity to perform an original opera at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center as part of the Utah Opera's children opera showcase.

"The kids were so thrilled," said Mary Williams, kindergarten teacher at St. Vincent. "They were so energized and excited to be there and proud to be on a real stage."

Williams had chosen three children's books for her students to use as a basis for an opera. In the end, they voted for Rose's Garden by Peter H. Reynolds, about a girl who attempts to create a garden in a neglected place of a busy city.

"[Rose] traveled in the world to get seeds and to plant them in a big city," said Tytus Mauchley, a student in Williams' class.

Mauchley said he liked working on the opera because "it had lots of music and dancing."

The kids used their artistic judgment and creativity to bring their adaptation of the book to life.

"They're the creators," Williams said. "We just guide."

The students each had a turn to compose a line of the libretto.

"They retold it in their words, and they know which line they wrote," Williams said.

St. Vincent's music teacher and Utah Opera composer Scott Larrabee worked with the kids to help them create the score.

"He's part of our artistic staff, and he taught them voice exercises and how to project," Williams said. "He's a wonderful composer."

The kids also went on a tour of Capitol Theater, where they saw behind the scene of the production of "The Magic Flute."

"It's always fun to see how the pros do it," Williams said. "They let us see the set; they took us downstairs to the dressing room, the wig room and were fabulous about giving us a big theater tour."

Heather Foy said her daughter was so excited to go to Capitol Theater.

"It does open up a whole new kind of life for these children, especially when they're this young," Foy said. "It was really empowering for them."

Foy said her daughter, Lauren, would come home singing every night when the class was working on the production. She described Lauren as shy, so the opera gave her the opportunity to gain confidence as well.

"It was really fun to watch her performing in front of 500 people," she said. "She is so proud of herself."

Foy is an art enthusiast herself so she appreciated that a program like this encourages students to expand their knowledge and love of the arts.

"They did learn a lot, and they were a part of every single detail," Foy said. "To them, they'll always remember and appreciate it."

Foy and other parents contributed by helping with the set and costume, but the children had a big part as they illustrated how they wanted everything to look.

"Every parent had a job to sign up for different committees," Williams said. "I could not do anything that magnificent without the support of the parents."

After working for three months, Williams was afraid the children would be tired when they took the stage at Rose Wagner on March 21, but they were ready for it.

"When they walked through the door [the next] morning, they were still excited," she said.

To her, the best part about putting the opera together was seeing the kids find their strengths and mature along the way.

"Everybody has different talents so each child blooms in some way," she said. "It was so exciting to see which part of the opera is going to be their strong point."

Although most people might think of an opera only as a performing art, Williams pointed out that the process of creating an opera involves many talents and skills.

"It meets so many areas of the curriculum," she said. "It addresses all the language art, all the theater, music, dancing."

In past productions, Williams has also integrated math, social studies and religion.

"It's all-encompassing," she said. "It teaches them to work together cooperatively."

A huge aspect of the opera, she said, is to build confidence in the young students. She observed great changes in their maturity.

"I have children at the beginning of the year who would not stand up, they would cower on the floor behind everyone else," Williams said. "It was also thrilling to see when they're having a huge audience, they're standing and singing."

Three elementary schools are invited to perform each year in the showcase at Rose Wagner. The invitation stems from the teachers' participation in the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera's "Music! Words! Opera!" workshop.

The free week-long course teaches teachers how to create operas with students. Williams said they placed the teachers in groups and had them actually perform so they could put themselves in their students' shoes.

Williams has been doing musicals with her students for 11 years, but the workshop gave her a new appreciation for what she does.

"After taking that class, I thought this is such a beautiful gift to give to the children, just what an 'opera-tunity' to be able to actually teach and perform at the same time," she said.

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Children's opera showcase

Presented by Utah Opera to highlight original operas written and composed by elementary students.

St. Vincent DePaul Catholic School was one of three schools that presented this year at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

St. Vincent put on Rose's Garden based on a book by Peter H. Reynolds under the guidance of teacher Mary Williams and Utah Opera composer Scott Larrabee.