Who switched the tape?
That is the mystery at the heart of a new student opera, written, produced and performed by fourth- and fifth-graders at Malcolm X Arts & Academic Magnet School.
The opera, “Expressionality,” centers on a class of performing arts students – a painter, a poet, a dancer, a rapper, a comedian, a juggler and a jazz musician nicknamed “Poison Ivy.”
Ivy, who has a reputation for being mean to the other kids, steps up to play a clarinet solo only to find that someone has switched the tape of accompanying music, foiling her performance. The rest of the opera focuses on the search for the culprit.
The production is the brainchild of more than 50 Malcolm X students who have worked on the opera since September, serving as writers, composers, electricians, set designers and even public relations staff. The group calls itself “Lights Camera Opera!”
The students performed once Wednesday and twice Thursday. The opera will run again this morning, in the Malcolm X auditorium and at the Oakland Museum Saturday at 4 p.m.
Giselle Moreno, a fifth-grader who helped write the script, said the production has taught the students about cooperation.
“(We learned) how to work together,” Moreno said. “These are fourth- and fifth-grade classes and we didn’t know each other well.”
Malcolm X teachers Jennifer Adcock and Marilyn Hiratzka guided the production after attending trainings the past two summers with the New York-based Metropolitan Opera Guild.
Last year, students under the direction of Adcock and Hiratzka wrote and performed an opera called “Treacherous Crossings” about the trip across the Mexican-United States border.
This year, two more Malcolm X teachers, Candy Cannon and Tara Easley, will lead a group of students in putting up a May opera.
“I think the biggest thing (the students) get out of this is a collective experience,” said Adcock, a fifth-grade teacher. “They learn, in tangible ways, that they are important as individuals, but far more powerful as a collective.”
Hiratzka added that students learn about their own potential to write, build and produce something meaningful over time.
“There’s a lot of discovery in the process,” she said. “What does it mean to start something, and six months later, have something else?”
Students say they also learned practical skills in constructing sets and footlights.
“We learned how to use rulers,” said fourth-grader Charles Wood, who served as a set designer.
Hannah Miller, another fourth-grade set designer, talked about transferring set drawings from small pieces of paper to larger flats by making use of grids on both surfaces.
It wasn’t always an easy process. Claire Engan, a fourth-grade scriptwriter, said that before they selected character names, students referred to the players as Characters A, B, C, and D.
“It was kind of confusing,” she said. But, Engan added, it all worked out in the end.
When a reporter asked the assembled cast and crew if they had fun putting “Expressionality” together, the answer was a resounding “yes.”