Our new documentary, “Opera Kids,” follows a year in the life of a fifth grade class as they work together to create an original opera. This program, called “Creating Original Opera” was initiated by the Metropolitan Opera Guild 30 years ago and has been a staple in this New Jersey school’s fifth grade curriculum for the past 25 years. Each year the fifth grade class creates their show from scratch, conceiving its ‘theme’ at the beginning of the school year and then writing, composing, and producing a full-scale production at year’s end. And they do it all by themselves, making it the first and most time-intensive collaborative assignment of their young lives.
We took on this project because it seemed like a direct but very entertaining way to confront a major issue in education today: the gradual erosion of the arts from school curriculums.
We, the filmmakers, come from public and private elementary school backgrounds, but both of us had the privilege of elementary school teachers who enriched our lives with creativity. We were given opportunities as kids to work together with our peers to develop and synthesize stories into plays, fiction, poems, and music.
After finishing high school and college and having occasion to reflect on our years in school, we began to make clear connections between our creative experiences as young children and the path of our development through adolescence and young-adulthood. We both had the chance as lower-schoolers to step outside our comfort zones and work with our classmates on a yearlong project, one we could only complete and achieve successfully if we were to work together. Those first creative and at the same time collaborative experiences had enormous influence on the more complex work we have done later in life. In situations as varied as sports coaching, debating, music producing and psychology experiments, whatever creativity we felt flowing through us seemed connected to those formative moments in elementary school when our teachers believed in us enough to give us the chance for self-expression.
Giving children a platform to come up with their own ideas at an early age (in addition to them learning or memorizing established concepts in their core classes) can have ripple effects throughout their lives, no matter what they choose to do. They’re likely to become independent thinkers, innovators and leaders, and will have already grappled with the difficulties and experienced the rewards of working together. But our test-driven schools are slowly closing their doors on programs like Creating Original Opera due to the uncertainty of the immediate and practical purpose of the arts.
Our task, as storytellers of “Opera Kids,” was to devise a way to challenge conventional attitudes to arts education in a way that both acknowledged the problem and showed a dynamic solution. Initially, the solution was more easily grasped than the way to introduce the problem. We knew we wanted to follow this particular school and its opera production over the course of the year because it was a model of what can happen when children are given both the freedom and resources to create for themselves.
We knew that the problem of dwindling large-scale arts support existed. Yet it didn’t have a personal connection to our story until we began to interview dozens of adults who had experienced pivotal moments in their childhood through Creating Original Opera. Most schools have since dropped the program due to diminishing funds and the growing mindset that arts are not nearly as significant in school curriculums as math or science. Throughout these personal reflections of once Opera students, it became increasingly clear that this program was the focal point of their early education. Regardless of whether they were interested in theater or music either before or after they took the class, it was an opportunity they anxiously anticipated throughout their lower school years, and an experience that has been ingrained in them forever. It’s a class so unlike any other class, most of which are formally structured, teacher lectured, and competitive in nature. And for children, for whom school was a struggle and a real task, the Opera ignited in them a reason to wake up and go to school each day.
“Opera Kids” is both a comedy and tragedy. Its central story, one fifth grade class’s journey of creation, is first and foremost an entertaining way to envelop us in an issue, a bracing look at the creative process and a refreshing child’s eye view of childhood. This part of the film is focused on the kids creating their opera and the process they obsess about. But surrounding that lengthy effort is a larger, bittersweet issue, essentially contradicting the purely joyous creation of this show: regardless of the potential impact an arts program like Creating Original Opera can have on children, its disappearance from curriculums across the country bespeaks a calamitous degeneration of values in our educational system.
The film will hopefully adopt the style of early Michael Moore films, in which entertainment and issues co-exist simultaneously. A message, communicated with panache, makes the viewer care even more passionately about an issue than they would have by simply highlighting the problem.
As we approach the editing phase of ‘Opera Kids,’ we reflect on the role the arts played in our own early lives, and how such exposure to each other within a “do-it-yourselves” atmosphere shaped us and our classmates, gave us skills and dreams for future leadership and teamwork whether on the stage, sports field, work office or in Washington. We believe every child should have the opportunity for a similarly empowering educational experience, not as an extra-curricular but within the classroom as part of the school day. It is our hope that “Opera Kids” can have at least some influence on repositioning the arts back in school curriculums.
In addition to “Opera Kids,” Max Sturm and Joseph Alessi’s film work includes “Lyrical Medicine Chest” (Winner of PBS’ Reel 13 Competition and Anthology Archives Selection) as well as the upcoming “Indianapolis,” an adaptation of a short story by Pulitzer Prize recipient Sam Shepard. Max and Joe are the founding members of 60.46 Productions (www.sixtyfortysix.com).