Let’s hear it for the Springs School’s fourth-grade opera, “Cat Tales” — or “Ton of Fun 61 Opera” — which was performed four times at Guild Hall this month. Imagine, 61 kids divided into small groups, writing a libretto, composing music, building sets and doing lighting, working on makeup, sewing costumes, and handling promotion. I’ve been to lots of kids’ productions over the years, including some directed by theater professionals, and you can take it from me: This was extraordinary.
“Cat Tales” was the 16th annual adventure in opera at the Springs School. The genesis was a Metropolitan Opera Guild program for elementary school teachers. Sue Ellen O’Connor, Springs’s academic enrichment faculty member, who has been coordinating the productions from the start, said Springs had expanded and refined the program over time. Ms. O’Connor supervises the writing, Margaret Thompson, the school’s music teacher, helps students experiment with sounds and melodies, and Kyril Bromley, a professional musician, puts the music and words together and gives the songs their finishing touches. They have been at it for years.
The story line this year was familiar. One cat, Max, played by Brody Eggert, wants to play, but the others aren’t interested until . . . well, the opera has a happy ending. Ms. O’Connor said the program generates a lot of interest among students, with some waiting to emulate their older siblings. Third graders fill out preliminary applications for what they might like to do, and the project gets going at the beginning of the next school year with auditions for those interested in being in the cast.
Eleven cats had title roles in “Cat Tales,” with another 11 in the chorus. Their costumes were perfect. The kids drew them first and then were helped by parents at the sewing machines. Mr. Bromley said he likes to work with three or four students at a time rather than a batch of fidgety 9-year-olds. And, while fourth grade sounds awfully young for what is involved, he finds them less self-conscious than students in higher grades. They come up with “oddball, multiple ideas.”
Adults assist, but the kids originate everything. To this listener, some of the outstanding songs (and there were 16 of them!) and some of the dialogue would have made adult writers and composers proud. I was particularly impressed by the message and melody of one of the songs, “When Does Later Come?,” and by the patter in “Whisker Twisters,” for twin cats. The cat twins were played by real ones, Caleb and Colin Wright, one of whom wrote the words, the other the music. (Evan Mendelman stood in at the last minute for the last performance when one of the twins took ill.)
Ms. O’Connor believes that the operas have raised the bar on what students believe they can accomplish, and that therefore they help contribute to academic achievement and even test scores. “It’s empowerment,” she said.
I am amused by the fact that three operas were on Guild Hall’s schedule this month in as many weeks. “Cat Tales” was sandwiched between “Les Troyens” by Berlioz and Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” in HD performances from the Met.
Who knows? Perhaps someone who got his or her start as a Springs School performer will make it to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera some day.