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EL SERENO : Curtain Going Up on Wilson High Opera

April 18, 1993|MARY ANNE PEREZ

Wilson High School students shouted and stepped to a director's commands, repeating the movements to get them just right for next month's production of a high school opera about young political refugees in contemporary Los Angeles.

"Think about where you are during the scene," director Ira McAliley calls out to the students-turned-performers. "If you don't think about it, you're going to forget. There's only one more rehearsal before we perform."

The 45 students are being coached by members of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Company and will serve as the chorus, minor characters and instrumentalists in "A Place to Call Home" by Edward Barnes, a resident member of the opera company. Members of the opera company play the leads.

The rehearsal last week had an air of urgency because it left only one more practice session before the May 6 production. The students, some studying drama but many others in liberal arts classes, lose patience, talk among themselves and fidget as they wait for instructions from McAliley.

The opera is one of nine being produced in Los Angeles schools with weekly workshops for students in staging, costumes, music and percussion. It is the second year for the opera company's foray into local high schools.

"The pilot program last year was 15 (schools) and that was insane," said percussionist John Fitzgerald. Another program earlier this year featured students from Fremont and Manual Arts high schools who wrote their own operas about last year's riots. This year, the program has been pared and all schools participating are putting on the same production, he said.

"Most of the students who come into this have not performed in front of an audience," said Jerry Mendelsohn, a teacher at Humanitas Academy, a program for gifted students that focuses on literature, history and music. "Some don't even speak up in class, but by the end of the class they're singing original music on stage. At the very least, it's an incredible confidence builder."

McAliley shows the students how to rush backward on the stage as if they are being blown by a strong wind and gives them cues for when to rise or walk toward other students on stage.

"If we can get one student who's never walked up on the stage to get up there, that's an accomplishment," the 28-year-old director and choreographer said. "The general goal is exposing them to something they would not have learned. You hear these kids running around singing these songs and you say, 'Wait, you're singing opera.' "

Students say they have seen some of their peers overcome a little shyness while working on the production. Others say the practice gives them a break from an otherwise tough academic schedule.

"It's not hard work. You just have to pay attention," said Efrain Morales, 16, who is enrolled in the school's Humanitas Academy.

"When you get in here, it's like relief," said Rick Amezcua, 16.

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