By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- When a group of third- and fourth-graders from Martin Luther King Elementary School traveled to Pittsburgh early this school year to see their first opera, they were anything but impressed.
"It was funny," Alex Hines said with a smile. "They were all singing loud and crazy and everything."
"I couldn't understand it," Stevie Gibson said about the performance of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" at the Benedum Center.
"Kinda made me sleepy," Marquise Higgs declared.
Six months later, these 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds from Youngstown's inner-city still may be a bit perplexed and wearied by Mozart.
Changed tune: But they've changed their tune about opera; they're living it and loving it.
"It can be really fun," said Hines, 9, a third-grader. "I've learned that it can be very nice."
Hines is production manager of Kids Club Opera Co., started this academic year by 19 children at MLK school with the help of Youngstown State University's Students Motivated by the Arts program.
"Connect Five," a 40-minute opera written, staged and performed by the children, makes its public premiere May 17 at YSU's Ford Theater.
"It's been a tremendous experience for the kids, the teachers, the school and for me," Kelly Bancroft, SMARTS coordinator, said last week at a rehearsal in MLK's cafeteria-auditorium.
"The kids' energy is just so wonderful, and it's so contagious."
New York program: The school, on Covington Street, adjacent to Westlake Terrace Homes, is the first in the Mahoning Valley to participate in the New York Metropolitan Opera Guild's Creating Original Opera program.
The 20-year-old national program, now in place in dozens of schools from Big Fork, Mont., to Plantation, Fla., helps schoolchildren write a script, compose music, design costumes and make-up, build sets, lights, and props, and manage, promote and perform an original opera.
Bancroft, third-grade teacher Lauren Olson and Karen Clark-Green, director of Archangel Dance Theater in Youngstown, attended a seven-day seminar at the University of Cincinnati's Conservatory of Music last summer to learn about developing the program at MLK.
Auditions conducted: After the trip to "Figaro" in Pittsburgh and learning more about opera from students at YSU's Dana School of Music, the children auditioned for the various jobs required to put together an opera, including writers, performers, electricians, carpenters and costume and makeup designers.
A team of four writers tackled the task of writing a script and developing characters and dialogue.
The story focuses on a brother and sister, TJ and Felicia, who hang out in an abandoned apartment building. They want to steal a necklace from Roberto, a football player, but fear getting into trouble and going to jail. So, they recruit a friend, Maya, and threaten to beat her up if she doesn't steal the necklace.
An old woman witnesses the theft, and Maya gets caught. Guilt-ridden, TJ and Felicia try to make amends. They fix up the apartment building, transforming it into a kids club where they reunite with Maya.
The production includes five songs composed by the pupils: "Big Trouble," "Who Stole My Necklace," "Maya's Song," "Teamwork" and "She Took the Rap for Us."
In charge: As production manager, Hines oversees the operation.
"I've got to make sure everyone is behaving and doing what they're supposed to be doing and not fooling around," she said at a rehearsal last week.
Olson said she has integrated the opera project into all of her classroom subjects. In social studies, for instance, pupils learned about the history of opera. And in math, they learned measurement skills by building opera sets.
"It just brings it all home," Olson said. "You can learn about measurement in a textbook, but it's a whole different thing measuring an actual 2-by-4 and knowing where you're going to saw it."
The opera project is funded by SMARTS, a program started nearly four years ago by YSU to bring the arts into the city schools.
Previously, SMARTS introduced jazz to MLK pupils and led a photo documentary project in the school. The program has expanded to include pupils at Hayes Middle School on the North Side.
Hoping to expand: Becky Keck, communications specialist in YSU's College of Fine and Performing Arts and a founder of SMARTS, said MLK will continue the opera program next year, and she said she hopes to expand it to other schools.
Bancroft said a group of YSU telecommunications students are filming a documentary of the opera project, which they hope will air on PBS Channels 45/49.
Admission is $1 for the performance at YSU, which will be at 6 p.m. May 17. Reservations are required. The opera also will be performed for schoolchildren May 15 and for friends and family May 16 at the school.