Four new operas debuted at a Philadelphia elementary school Wednesday, each less than five minutes long, written and performed by 9-year-olds.
Opera Philadelphia facilitated the creation of the operas based on the Dr. Seuss story, “The Sneetches,” at William Camp Elementary in North Philadelphia, each composed by one of the fourth-grade homeroom classes.
“It’s all original, that’s what it’s so short,” said Tatyana Smolen, a teaching artist with Opera Philadelphia. “A majority of music was in pentatonic scale — only five notes instead of seven. It simplifies.”
Opera Philadelphia has a longstanding program to teach music in Philadelphia public schools, usually as a one-time drop-in class for about 45 minutes. This yea, the company expanded the program to a residency, so Smolen could come back every week for 10 weeks. William Camp Elementary has no music education at all; this was the only exposure to music the children received during the school day.
Smolen chose “The Sneetches” so she could teach both music and literacy.
“The text of ‘Sneetches’ is actually pretty difficult,” she said. “It’s not simple words that we use every day. I felt we needed to get the kids to retell it in their language.”
If you’ve forgotten what “The Sneetches” is about, here’s a refresher: A group of creatures with stars on their bellies think they are better than Sneetches with no stars on their bellies. Until the no-stars are able to artificially put stars on their bellies. Then the original star-bellies have their stars removed, to regain a sense of exclusion.
Like almost every Dr. Seuss story, a simple tale explores complicated depths. It’s a story about discrimination and, ultimately, acceptance.
The fourth-graders at William Camp distilled the already short story to abstraction. One class used percussion instruments to bang out a chant: “Everyone can be friends forever.”
“The message is incredible, to find that it’s OK to get along and be friends,” said Smolen. “You will hear a lot of repetition about friends.”