Opera Program Helps Students Soar

Springs fourth graders to stage school’s 17th annual production
Some of the 52 members of the Springs School’s fourth-grade opera company: from left, Natalia Flores, Corrina Castillo, Kimberly Bermeo, Sophia Yardley, and Nora Conlon Morgan McGivern

       It was crunch time for fourth graders at Springs School, with only six rehearsals remaining until the school’s annual opera debuts.

       Since early September, the 52-student company, comprised entirely of fourth graders, has been hard at work writing the script, composing the songs, painting the set, designing the costumes, and memorizing their lines.

       Titled “Dogs Don’t Talk,” the opera will debut on Wednesday night at 7 at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Additional performances are scheduled for 9:30 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. next Thursday, with a final performance on Friday, Jan. 17 at 9:30 a.m. The opera, which is free and open to the public, lasts about 45 minutes.

       At Springs School, the annual opera, which is now in its 17th year, is a highlight for both students and staff. Over the years, more than 800 students have participated.

       “The opera is one of the cornerstone programs at Springs School,” said Eric Casale, the principal. “Graduates come back years later and it’s one of the programs they consistently refer to and say that they cherished. The students and staff spend countless hours on the process, which makes the production what it is and has been over the years.”

       For the better part of the past two decades, Sue Ellen O’Connor and Margaret Thompson, two Springs teachers, have overseen the yearly production, which is based on the principles of the Metropolitan Opera Guild.

       Every September, students complete a rigorous process, including an audition, before roles are assigned. Besides performers, students also work as composers, set designers, costume designers, makeup artists, lighting and sound assistants, and public relations personnel. The entire process takes place during after-school hours, with parents responsible for supplying transportation. 

       “Because they write and create it themselves, it’s so alive for them. We’re not just handing them a script,” Ms. Thompson, who has taught music at Springs for the past 29 years, said during Tuesday afternoon’s rehearsal. “It’s the highlight of our year. It’s exhausting, yes, but every year, it gives me chills. And when it’s over, they all really miss it.”

       Mrs. O’Connor started the opera during her second year at the school. A Springs School graduate, where her grandmother also taught, she has been a teacher for 41 years, working in Baltimore before returning to Springs.

       “This program really changes lives and has a broad impact,” said Mrs. O’Connor, while the cast received considerable coaching from Terie Greene, the stage director. “These kids are subjected to a great deal of testing and the opera gives them such confidence. Once you’ve done an opera, you’re not intimidated by tests. They’re empowered.”

       During the week of the opera, Mrs. O’Connor said that members of the fourth-grade class attain celebrity-like status, with many walking the hallways bolstered by a newfound sense of self-confidence after having earning the respect and admiration of their fellow students.

       “There aren’t many ways that fourth graders get recognized,” she said. “It’s a great age, they’re becoming very sure of themselves, with their identities beginning to emerge. The second and third graders, they can’t wait, they’re already preparing for their opera.”

       Year after year, it is the writing process that most enthralls Mrs. O’Connor — watching her students see the lines that they’ve written finally come to life under the bright lights of the stage.

       And in 17 years, despite any rough edges beforehand, opening night always goes off without a hitch. How the dress rehearsal goes on Sunday will determine how well she sleeps for the remainder of the week, she said.

       Even so, the pressure is on.

       With only a handful of rehearsal hours left — and a final dress rehearsal planned for Sunday afternoon from 1 to 4 p.m. — many students are busy running their lines during any available free time.

       Sophia Yardley, 9, has taken to rehearsing on her long driveway, learning to speak loudly enough so that her mother can hear her all the way at the other end. Meanwhile, her classmate, Natalia Flores, also 9, runs lines every evening in her bedroom, “over and over again.”

       “I’m really excited,” said Corrina Castillo, 9, during lunchtime on Tuesday, in between bites of a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich. She wore a neon green sparkly sweater with tiny blue dolphin earrings and Ugg boots to ward off the cold. “Each opera teaches a lesson,” she explained. “Ours is about not bragging.”

       But Kimberly Bermeo, also 9, was nervous that she would inevitably screw up a duet that she and Corrina share. “It’s a rhyming song and I’m worried that I’ll ruin it,” she said, with a flip of her long ponytail.

       Daniel Piver, 9, will play the part of Dexter, a character that he wrote. He shared her sentiment. “I’m really nervous,” said Daniel. “I’ve never been up on a stage before.”

       When stage fright proves too much, Kimberly has devised a simple solution. It is a strategy she shared openly with her fellow cast members: “I imagine everyone in their underwear. And for the women, I imagine them in their bras and underwear,” she said, with a laugh.