Opinion: One Opera, Seventy-Six Roles
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Opinion: One Opera, Seventy-Six Roles

In the Sound of the Bells

My son was delighted to perform earlier this week in the second-grade opera at Potomac Elementary School, “Sunroamer Learns to Shine.” The second-grade opera is apparently a fairly venerable tradition at Potomac Elementary, and my wife and I had been hearing about the unfolding plans for the event around the dinner table since midwinter.

At first, I will admit, I was fairly skeptical if any production with a cast formed entirely of seven-year-olds would count as an opera — and indeed, there were no swordfights, Viking helmets or suicides. But many of the lines were, indeed, sung, (and quite well). The plot was suitably dramatic, the costumes colorful, and the setting entirely otherworldly — a dialogue of the planets, in fact.

As my son was quick to explain, the main lines of the plot were borrowed from Dickens. Instead of a crotchety old accountant, the protagonist was the sun (“Sunroamer”), who had become a rather nasty little boy, refusing to shine on the earth, casting fireballs at aliens and spaceships, and generally not playing well with others.

After putting him to sleep with moondust (that must be in Puccini, right?), the sun was shown a series of three dreams: the happy days of yore, the thoroughly disagreeable present, and a bright future that could lie ahead if only he would take the Golden Rule more seriously. Awakening from his dream, Sunroamer sets off on a new tack, brightening the cosmos in the process. As the opera’s closing song summarized:

You gotta treat, treat, treat, others kindly.

Give, give, give them compliments.

You gotta think, think, think before you speak,

Every time and every day.

The most remarkable thing about the whole production is that the second graders had created all of it. Working with the school’s reading specialist, Rebecca Silverman, they had drafted the plot, including the words to the songs. They had composed the simple melodies with the help of the school’s music teacher, Suzane Basaric, and painted the set and designed the costumes with the help of the art and physical education teachers, Tori Wenger and Jason Smith.

And there were second-grade fingerprints all over the plot. Planets play ball in an afternoon with aliens and a spaceship — and one of the aliens is a cow who likes to take naps all the time. The melodies were stepwise and singable. The narrative arc was suitably bright and optimistic. And the whole effort was carried off with smiles and tangible excitement, so much the more because the entire class had “owned” the production as their own gift to the world, especially to the parents and siblings who crowded into the assembly hall.

In addition, each child had a part in the play, all 76 of them. Each of the three second grade classes was responsible for an act, providing all the actors and most of the musical accompaniment. The costumes were the same, which minimized confusion. Our son was the tambourine player for the third act, and even though he had just 12 notes to play, he did it proudly, and was certain the show could not go on without his help.

As a veteran of many Sunday School Christmas pageants, I can testify to the fact that performances designed for everyone to have a part can be really difficult. It would have been infinitely easier to find a snappy children’s theatre script for the evening, to hire a few professionals in the pit and to pick out the most talented dozen students for the key roles in the production. Sadly, this is increasingly the way of things in children’s activities these days, which tend towards the competitive and slick, a few bright bulbs planted firmly in the spotlight.

This was a different kind of project, and a more worthy one. It opened the wonders of the stage to a whole group of children, who learned, along the way, some valuable skills about listening to each other, reaching consensus and supporting each other. The plot’s moral was all about treating others as you want to be treated, a concept that surely needed to be reinforced more than once by those long-suffering teachers along the way.

As a Christian, the class play where every member plays a role can’t help but remind me of Saint Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body with many parts. “There are many parts, yet one body,” he wrote. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’ … God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (I Corinthians 12:20-21, 24-25).

Radical in its own time, Saint Paul’s concept has become a foundation of Western social thought, even as many forget its Scriptural origins. Like many Christians, we will read this text at our services on Sunday, as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, when God sent down the Holy Spirit to scatter gifts among His people — a variety of gifts, for many different purposes. Those gifts are best used together, each member having a role to play, just like on the second-grade stage.