Playground operas for Harlem schoolchildren

Opera education in primary schools? Seems like a very far-out concept — but not for Trinidad-born Odelphia Pierre, Principal of PS 129 in Harlem, who appreciates the arts.

“They just love it,” she beams, thinking of the third and fourth graders’ embrace of Playground Operas, a program that has been evolving in her school during the last four years.

This principal knows her students are exposed to rap and hip hop, and now, they get to study plot, create props for, and are excited to sing alongside professionals in operas performed in the school’s playground.

A 27-year veteran educator in the New York City schools — heading PS 129 for 18 years — Principal Pierre elaborates, “They want to read and understand the story, the characters, and the roles. It’s all part of the literacy element of the program.”

The soul of the school’s Playground Operas is its one music teacher, Krista Wozniak, who has been at the school for 10 of her 16 years teaching music in schools. An opera singer, she is also the board president of Opera on Tap that performs operas in alternative spaces like bar backrooms.

The idea came to Wozniak after she saw the success of a couple day-long family workshops Opera on Tap gave with other community programs.

The first year, in 2014, working with an enthusiastic Mrs. Fuller and her third grade and the schoolyard as the stage, the Magic Flute was performed.

This year, Playground Operas created the well known Hansel and Gretel.

Classes are the production team, a result of eight, 2-hour workshops in homeroom classes, conducted by two teaching artists — also professional singers.

The students learn plot, adding their adaptations. They do what is needed for the production. Totally immersed in the arts and crafts component making costumes and props, for some it is the first art class experience in the school. Wozniak proves that staging an opera (or any genre) can take place anywhere. And, they love the singing.

Teaching artist and singer Briana Sakamoto conducts the children in chorus who go through three costume changes—wearing student-made masks, embodying the dense forest, and the wicked witches’ gaggle of gingerbread people.

The other teaching artist, classical singer Joy Jones, plays Gretel, performing the tale with other professional singers, all accompanied by live musicians. Music teacher

Wozniak sings the roles of the mother and the ogress and students also have walk- on, non-singing roles.

When rain forced one of the three performances — different classes participating — into the auditorium this year, more students were able to watch the production.

Each subsequent year, the approach and curriculum get better and more classes participate in exploring the operatic experience.

“Children can be themselves in this program,” observes Principal Pierre. And, of the motivating factor in the classroom, she says, “It’s something they really look forward to.”

The students are asked for feedback and they write of their particular enjoyment of mask making, singing, and of course performing for their parents, who are thrilled as well.

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