From the Classroom to the Stage: Local Teens Perform in an Opera They Helped Create

Over the past two years, 50 adventuresome students from Zoo Magnet High School helped create a new opera. Next week, they will perform the show for the first time. Inspired by the creative process and the adrenaline rush of performing, these teens—even the ones who originally may have resisted the idea of enjoying opera—are now embracing their power as artists and storytellers.

Students perform in The Wreck of the Miranda

Students perform in The Wreck of the Miranda

It all starts with a compelling story told with great music—the heart of opera. The new work, The Wreck of the Miranda, tells a fictional story inspired by real-life events that the students studied and researched. The Wreck of the Miranda is centered around two high school students, Angela and Eva. When the residents of their seaside town begin to fall mysteriously ill, eco-conscious Eva becomes suspicious that a recent shipwreck is to blame. She must learn to put aside their differences and work together with popular student Angela to change the tide of public opinion in a town that’s propped up entirely by the fishing industry. Together with their school, played by the chorus of students, they must conduct research, collect data, and confront the mega-corporation to hold them responsible.

How did this opera come about?

Two years ago, one of LA Opera’s longtime collaborators reached out to the company. The Autry Museum of the American West shared a desire to explore issues of environmental justice through its Classroom Curators program. The idea for an opera was born. The students of Zoo Magnet were invited to research local stories on those themes to see if they could come up with suitable subject matter for a new stage work. Their findings were presented to composer Nathan Wang and librettist Matthew Leavitt, who took that wealth of information and from it crafted The Wreck of the Miranda. After the initial performances at Zoo Magnet, the new opera will be performed by hundreds of other local teens from nine other schools, all presenting the work for their own fellow students and family members.

Several times over the last year, the Zoo Magnet students attended workshops for the opera as it developed, providing invaluable feedback about the work in progress. They were joined by students from other LA are schools, including North Hollywood High Magnet School. Invaluable feedback about the emerging opera was also provided by Robert Garcia, a passionate advocate for environmental justice and the founding director of The City Project.

Students perform in The Wreck of the Miranda

Students perform in The Wreck of the Miranda

Bringing opera to secondary schools

The Zoo Magnet students are participating in LA Opera’s annual secondary in-school opera program, a 10-week opera residency in local middle and high schools where participants learn the fundamentals of music, vocal and dramatic technique and theatrical staging. The program culminates in students working alongside professional artists to perform an opera in their schools for audiences of fellow students and family members. Special support for the initiative is provided by the California Arts Council’s Artists in Schools program.

The program is more than a performing arts residency, it is designed as an integrative approach to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) in schools. Science and environmental justice lessons that provide a deeper understanding of the issues addressed in the opera. They learn about the history and impact of shipwrecks off the California coast. They study the chemical reactions that could cause the illnesses described in the opera. And they gain a deeper understanding of social and environmental justice issues by connecting the events in the opera to the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

As part of the opera’s development process, The Heidi Ducker Dance Theater offered professional development to LA Opera’s teaching artists on how to engage and guide non-professional artists and dancers in creative movement in specific diverse locations.  Heidi is renowned for her choreography that she sets in fascinating locations, throughout Los Angeles, including work set on the docks of San Pedro. The secondary in-school opera program aims to empower students, not only by giving them the confidence perform onstage in front of their peers.  They are also shown that their voice matters, both in the creation of new art and as a force for environmental justice.

LA Opera artist Kelci Hahn (in glasses) with the students of Santee Middle School

LA Opera artist Kelci Hahn (in glasses) with the students of Santee Middle School

Next week, when the Zoo Magnet students finally perform The Wreck of the Miranda, they can take pride in doing something few teens have ever done—appearing in an opera they helped bring into existence—and knowing that their new creation and it’s message will live on through performances by students at other area schools.

LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.
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