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How one middle school in New Mexico is teaching kids about the world through opera

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Middle school is a place for math, science, reading and for children to explore their world. Member station KUNM's Mia Casas visited one school in New Mexico that's also using opera to do that.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Try it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: (Singing) I'm sorry...

MIA CASAS, BYLINE: In a classroom at the private Albuquerque Academy, about 20 middle school students are singing and dancing around a piano with their shoes off.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: The planet.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: (Singing) The planet. The planet. The planet.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) The planet. The planet. The planet. The planet.

CASAS: This is the academy's opera club. They create 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."

BECCA HOLMES: Each opera seems, every year, has had some kind of connection to the current events.

CASAS: Teacher Becca Holmes started opera club seven years ago after working at the Santa Fe Opera. This year's creation is about twin alien brothers who have to evacuate their planet due to a climate crisis. The twins don't find the warm welcome on their new planet that they expected.

HOLMES: I think immigration is the story of our time. And yes, he's an alien coming from another planet, but that doesn't really change a lot of the theme of the story. That's kind of a powerful piece of it.

CASAS: Opera club themes have ranged widely over the years and have included female liberation, friendship, greed, capitalism, pollution, toxic masculinity and redemption. Evan Deitch (ph) is 11 and wrote two of the songs for this year's performance. He's been writing music since he was 7.

EVAN DEITCH: I do the opera club because I feel like it's just a very good way to express art's potential as far as composing, acting, singing, set design.

CASAS: Holmes says she started with the drama club but had dreams of something different.

HOLMES: 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 to explore the problems that they face.

CASAS: Holmes roped in Edmund Connolly, who teaches chorus and other music classes here. The two wanted to create a space for all students to feel that they belong. Connolly says opera includes a much wider student body than other activities.

EDMUND CONNOLLY: If you do something that's purely music, then the students who are really strong and confident in that will get involved. If you do something that's purely acting or playwriting, it'll attract those students. If you do something that's about creating visual art, it will attract those students. If you do something that's about playing around with machines and trying to make stuff work, then there are kids who want to do that. This includes all of those kids.

CASAS: At the beginning of each school year, the teachers have students brainstorm ideas.

HOLMES: This year, they voted on something like, oops, I married an alien.

CASAS: 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. Eleven-year-old Max Berger (ph) is the stage manager. He said he was never a theater guy but realized he likes working behind the scenes. It makes him feel...

MAX BERGER: Just maybe proud or something because - I don't know - I just get to, like, do 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.

CASAS: Students at Albuquerque Academy perform "Problems With The Apocalypse" this month. Next fall, the club will start brainstorming for the opera club's eighth season. For NPR News, I'm Mia Casas in Albuquerque.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICOLE LIZEE'S "GIRL, YOU'RE LIVING A LIFE OF CRIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mia Casas