When composer-librettist Edward Barnes was commissioned last year by the Los Angeles Music Center Opera to write an opera to be performed by and for Los Angeles area high school students, it seemed only logical that he take on the contemporary immigrant experience.
"When we looked at the high school audience we were trying to reach here in Los Angeles, the percentage of immigrants is enormous, so we knew the story would have to touch on something they knew about," said Barnes, 34. In fact, 70% of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District come from a home where English is not the primary language.
The result of Barnes' work is "A Place to Call Home," a 40-minute work that focuses on four political refugees--a Central American, a Southeast Asian, a Middle Easterner and an American Indian (a refugee within her own land) Barnes said)--and the obstacles they face as immigrants here.
As many as 60 students at each high school--in solo, ensemble, chorus and percussion groups--will join four Music Center Opera professionals in performances at 15 local schools. The work premieres today at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys and continues through March 20.
Each of the central characters--MCO resident artists Wonjung Kimm, Stephanie Vlahos, Greg Fedderly and Richard Bernstein--has a musical theme that reflects his or her country of origin.
"It's a combination of world-music sounds, exotic, foreign sounds, folk-music sounds from other lands, the sounds of Persian drumming and zither music, Southeast Asian sounds like gamelan, and contemporary pop music," Barnes said.
The composer, who attended Juilliard and has worked in Broadway theaters, said that conventional opera has become a "museum" thing, "far removed from the people and out of touch with reality. So this is helping to take opera back to the people."
Barnes said his new work was loosely inspired by an Aztec myth about a boy who journeys from home and was written after two months of research and interviewing local immigrants.
The participating schools are part of the Humanitas Program, an inter-disciplinary program of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, which is also funding one-third of the $4,000 cost per school. Two other participating schools are in the juvenile court system, Phoenix House in Venice and Pacific Lodge in Woodland Hills, and are paying their own program costs. Additional funding is from the MCO and other foundations.
Since November, Barnes and director Robin McKee, visual artist Alfredo de Batuc, percussionist John Fitzgerald, and choreographer Tina Gerstler--have conducted 10 workshops with students to help them design their own costumes and set, build their own instruments and rehearse dance steps, staging, lines, cues and music.
"This is an experimental, very ambitious project, and it's scary. We're finding out what's possible at this level, and we haven't done the performances yet, so I don't know exactly how it will work," Barnes said.
The professionals found they had to spend double the hours and workshops devoted to an earlier opera for elementary school students, "A Muskrat Lullaby," also by Barnes. Cuts also had to be made in the script to simplify the new work. Despite these difficulties, most of the student performers feel up to the challenge.
"I thought that opera was silly, but now, it's like I want to do it some more," said Tricia Dunn, 16, of Manual Arts. Tricia, whose family comes from Belize, said: "The story makes a lot of sense to me. There were times when people made fun of my 'Creole' accent, and what I'm getting out of this opera is that people should be patient with foreigners, with me. I get treated all the time like I'm a foreigner even though I was born in New York."
"I know what happened to those refugees in the story when they came here because that's my story," said Magnolia Olmedo, 17, of Franklin High School, who emigrated with her family from the Philippines to Los Angeles in 1990. "And it's my story up there."