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The art of opera flourishing at Albuquerque Academy

Edmund Connolly leads the opera club in rehearsal.
Mia Casas
Edmund Connolly leads the opera club in rehearsal in Becca Holmes' classroom.

Opera isn’t exactly a genre that pulls in a lot of young people. But at Albuquerque Academy, they’re not only performing operas, but writing and scoring them.

The club engages middle schoolers in creating one opera each academic year. And despite the bouncy tune, this particular production deals with tough issues: climate change and immigration. It’s called “Problems With the Apocalypse.”

“Each opera, every year, has had some kind of connection to the current events,” said Becca Holmes, teacher at Albuquerque Academy.

She started Opera Club seven years ago after working at the Santa Fe Opera. This year's creation is about twin alien brothers who must evacuate their planet due to a climate crisis. The twins don’t find the warm welcome on their new planet that they expected.

“I think immigration is the story of our time,” Holmes said. “And yes, he's an alien coming from another planet, but that does really change a lot of the theme of the story. That’s kind of a powerful piece of it.”

Cuts outs used as costumes from a pervious opera done at Albuquerque Academy hanging in Becca Holmes' classroom.
Mia Casas
Cuts outs used as costumes from a pervious opera done at Albuquerque Academy hanging in Becca Holmes classroom.

The themes have ranged widely over the years and might not be what you would expect from 6th and 7th graders. They have included: female liberation, friendship, greed, capitalism, pollution, toxic masculinity, and redemption.

Evan Daitz, 11, wrote two of the songs for this year's performance. He has been writing music since he was 7.

“I started arranging full pieces at about the beginning of 5th grade. I do the opera club because I feel like it's just a very good way to express arts potential as far as composing, acting, singing, set design,” he said.

Evan Daitz, 11, hanging on aerial silks in Simms Little Theatre, the performance space for Problems with the Apocalypse.
Becca Holmes
Albuquerque Academy
Evan Daitz, 11, hanging on aerial silks used in the performance of Problems with the Apocalypse.

Holmes says she started with a drama club, but had dreams of something different.

“Opera club is a place where everybody belongs,” she said. “It's a safe space where everybody gets to be whoever they want, with no judgment. And I feel like we need more spaces like that, where kids can just open up and be kids and discover the things around the world that are meaningful to them and explore the problems that they face.”

Holmes roped in Edmund Connolly, who teaches chorus and other music classes at Albuquerque Academy. The two wanted to create a space for all students to feel that they belong. Connolly says it helps kids make connections with one another.

“They get to spend a lot of time with students they maybe don’t know terribly well. Whether its because they’re not in the same grade or just because their paths haven’t really crossed. And I know students who are now juniors and seniors who made their best friends doing this project,” said Connolly.

At the beginning of each school year, Holmes and Connolly have students brainstorm ideas for the topic of their opera.

“This year they voted on something like ‘Oops, I married an alien,’” said Holmes.

They draft a libretto and as spring semester starts they go into production mode. Students take various roles as the opera comes together. It’s like a puzzle, and everyone is a different piece.

Max Berger, 11, is the stage manager. He said he was never a “theater guy” but realized he likes working behind the scenes. It makes him feel…

“Just maybe proud or something because I don’t know. I just get to do like a lot with the opera and like I really get to collaborate with everyone which is really cool and I get to know everyone a little better,” said Berger.

The stage used for rehearsal space in Becca Holmes' classroom.
Mia Casas
The stage used for rehearsal space in Becca Holmes classroom.

While the students create each opera from scratch, Connolly says they’re also growing and exploring a whole new world.

“At this age, when they’re still trying to figure out who they are as people, it’s important for them to be able to explore different facets of themselves and different facets of human nature,” Connolly said. “And ask those questions and even if they don’t get answers, at least feel like they’re accepted for asking the questions about themselves and about the world.”

It’s a good bet these kids can grow into whatever they want to be. When prompted they gave a range of possible future careers, including lawyer, scientist, actor, film editor/actor/director, professional cellist …. and superhero.

UPDATE: The February 10 performances was postponed due to weather. They will now take place on February 17 at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are free and can be reserved here.

There will be three performances of "Problems with the Apocalypse" at Albuquerque Academy on Feb. 9 and 10.

Mia Casas is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in Journalism and Theatre at the University of New Mexico. She comes to KUNM through an internship with the New Mexico Local News Fund and is staying on as a student reporter as of fall 2023.
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