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SALT LAKE CITY — Opera might look and sound like a tough form of art to master, but some Salt Lake City fourth-graders are proving it can be tackled. A program promoting arts education in the schools is empowering kids to write and perform their own operas.
"Praise our potatoes, food that we eat," is an important refrain sung by fourth-grader Andrew Johnson in the opera he and his classmates wrote, produced and performed this April.
For fourth-graders at Highland Park Elementary School, their first taste of opera came in the form of "The Enormous Potato." Johnson described his role as the farmer: "I'm sitting on a giant potato, and it's kind of strange."
In fact, the fourth-graders literally picked apart a folk tale about a lazy potato farmer and then worked in small groups to compose the songs that bring the fable to life.
Composer and music consultant Jennifer Purdy worked with the children to get the notes down on paper and flesh out the lyrics.
"They've got a piece of the story that they're in charge of telling in song," Purdy explained.
Fourth-grader Mim DeWaal played and sang the role of the farmer's wife. "Going out to do the music during school is really fun to me because music's like my passion," she said.
Classmate Miles Little agreed, saying, "We had to write the songs by ourselves, and we had to practice them all one by one."
Miles worked closely with Purdy to compose a piece featuring the opera's leprechauns, called "Boots and Shoes."
Opera director and fourth-grade teacher Pieter Lingen called the process "empowering, because ... it's really exciting to be part of."
Lingen is in his ninth year of directing operas at Highland Park, and he never fails to be inspired by the kids.
"When I finally hear their voices on stage singing one of those songs, it's just like goose bumps," he said. "I could go to tears about it because it's just so exciting."
Paula Fowler, education director for the Utah Symphony and Opera, said it's easy to sell teachers on the program "once they see the learning that their students do in life skills as well as in music and theater, and they're practicing literature."
Of course, writing, composing and rehearsing an opera takes weeks. Some of that is time spent away from traditional learning. But Lingen believes it's so worth it. "And it's not really taking away," he said, "it's really giving more to their education."
Purdy agreed, saying, "There is a lot of problem solving and collaboration skills that go into these operas. Those are skills that will serve (the students) well for their whole lives."
Fourth-grader Ainsley Black already has a good idea of what she's learned from the opera-writing process.
"I've learned that it's harder to write songs than you might think," Ainsley said, "and that it's really fun working with a team."
This team of dedicated young artists was invited to perform their opera on the big stage at Rose Wagner Theater earlier this month.
Mim DeWaal reacted to the news they'd be taking the opera they wrote to a professional stage, saying, "When I first heard that, I went home and looked it up and I saw that it's an amazing place and I was wowed."
Fowler was also wowwed by the fourth-graders' opera. "They're investing in not just one little short assignment, but in many assignments that build up to a big conclusion in which everyone adores them," she said.
Teacher directors like Lingen applaud the Utah Opera's investment in these young artists. "Utah Opera has just kind of given us the wind in our sails to make this happen," he said.
Just like the characters in the folk tale they put to song, these kids proved they can meet any challenge.
"If you work really hard at something, you can get really good at it," Miles said.
Every summer, teachers throughout Utah train to direct an opera for their school during the "Music, Words, Opera!" workshop put on by the Utah Opera staff.
This year, 19 operas were written and performed at a dozen schools.