On August 6, LA Opera will premiere Then I Stood Up, a one-act youth opera that honors the contributions of young people to the Civil Rights Movement. The opera—which will be presented as the culmination of a two-week intensive summer Opera Camp—was commissioned by LA Opera and composed and co-written by Eli Villanueva and Leslie Stevens (who have also written other operas for the camp). For two years, Villanueva and Stevens worked closely with the education and community engagement team and a number of consulting organizations (Facing History and Ourselves, Watts Labor Community Action Committee, California African American Museum) on Then I Stood Up. They crafted an opera that not only engages audience members, but also teaches campers vital lessons about social justice.
Since the beginning, Opera Camp has sought to bring music and history together to show campers how they have a voice and as a community of young artists they can take a stand—together—for what they believe in. Because of this and inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, LA Opera commissioned Then I Stood Up in 2014.
Villanueva and Stevens then started mapping out what a youth opera about civil rights would look like. After a six- to nine-month period of intense research, Villanueva and Stevens started writing. They were inspired by stories of icons, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. However, they soon realized how challenging it would be for teenagers to embody these legendary figures, who were adults when they made history.
“We realized how impactful it would be for the participants to instead embody teenagers, like Claudette Colvin (who refused to give up her bus seat nine months before the better-known Rosa Parks did so)—who were their age or close to their age during the Civil Rights Movement,” says Eli Villanueva.
They rewrote the piece, realizing along the way how many stories of heroic children and teenagers there were and that we could not begin to cover them. These young people’s courageous efforts affected important changes and inspired others during the Civil Rights Era. The goal of rewriting Then I Stood Up to tell the stories of these teenagers is for the campers – kids and teenagers – to realize how close they are in age to these icons and for them to empathize with the stories of struggle and hope that they tell through opera camp.
Since Then I Stood Up is an opera, these stories of struggle are told through music. While working on the story with Stevens, Villanueva also composed the music.
“When I write for kids, I don’t want to make it too difficult for them. However, Then I Stood Up called for a lot of various styles of music. There are parts influenced by blues and jazz; there are others influenced by spirituals. The challenge was to blend these different musical styles, without trivializing them, and while also keeping an operatic flavor throughout the piece,” says Villanueva.
After rewriting the libretto and overcoming the challenges of writing the music, Villanueva and Stevens finally had a piece ready to be presented at LA Opera.
The reworked Then I Stood Up begins with the arrival of a substitute teacher in a contemporary classroom on the day student reports are due. As the students begin to deliver their reports on the young heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, the stories of Claudette Colvin, Emmett Till, the Little Rock Nine, and many more are played out on stage. Throughout the piece, the students come to understand how one person’s choices, even a young person, can help move the arc of history toward justice.
This is a lesson not only learned by the characters in the opera, but also by the participants in the opera, the audience, and ultimately everyone involved in opera camp, who witness more than fifty children and teens performing opera and standing up for what they believe in.
For more information about opera camp, click here.