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Students' Operatic Tenure : San Fernando High caps workshops with a performance by pupils singing and acting alongside professionals.

April 23, 1993|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly for The Times.

This isn't exactly formal opera attire here in the auditorium of San Fernando High School. The young students gathered on this Friday morning are dressed in the usual jeans and shorts, sneakers and loafers, all waiting quietly in hard folding seats. But no one has come just to watch.

The man leading this hour devoted to opera is Ira McAliley of the L. A. Opera's in-school opera program, giving stage direction from beneath a head of dreadlocks. His partner here, percussionist John Fitzgerald, has a ponytail as long as his forearm. They come to the weekly rehearsal to guide the nearly 60 students through the paces of "A Place to Call Home."

It's an opera of particular relevance to this pocket of youngsters, made up partly of recent immigrants, second-generation Americans and students of English as a second language. Written by Edward Barnes, "A Place to Call Home" follows a handful of young political refugees as they arrive in Los Angeles from Asia, Latin America and other foreign places with little preparation and are faced with a variety of cross-cultural conflicts.

It begins with the lyric: "I am a refugee, I am a fugitive, I'm a renegade in life/I've left behind my home, my friends, my family."

San Fernando High is just one of nine local high schools participating in this year's L. A. Opera in-school program, begun in 1990. After 10 weeks of workshops, each campus concludes its individual program with a public performance of students singing and acting alongside a core cast of professionals in "A Place to Call Home." The San Fernando presentation is scheduled May 8.

"We think that people learn more, enjoy more and get a personal connection with the arts experience by actually doing it," says Llewellyn Crain, manager of education and community programs for the Music Center-based L. A. Opera. "They also gain a sense of empowerment. Most of the students we deal with have never been on a stage before, never been in a chorus, never been in an orchestra. This makes them feel special."

Crain adds that the goal of the program is more to generally enrich the lives of the student participants than to specifically encourage a career in the arts. "If they carry this in their hearts wherever they go on in their lives, that's great," she says. "That's what I care about."

Ellen Kaminer, who has taught music and humanities at San Fernando High for a decade, says the program and the opera connect deeply with many of her students. "This has been remarkable," Kaminer says. "We have kids in this class who are a product of the English as a second language program. They show up every day. You never have to worry about their attendance. They're shy. But when they get up on stage, it's like a different person."

All nine of the participating schools are involved with the Humanitas program of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a nonprofit organization aimed at strengthening innovative programs in public schools. Humanitas pays a third of each of the campus's $6,000 production expenses, while L. A. Opera collects the remainder through donations and public grants.

Other San Fernando Valley high schools with upcoming performances include Taft High in Woodland Hills, May 4, and Grant High in Van Nuys, May 5.

A similar program at 15 Los Angeles-area elementary schools concluded this month with individual 20-minute productions of "The Pied Piper."

"We want them to feel connected to the arts," Crain says of students targeted by the program. "We want them to feel that the arts are for them; it's not foreign or distant. It's about them and their lives and who and where they are now."

An obvious byproduct of this is a demonstration to a generation accustomed to the fast beats and visuals of MTV that the opera is a medium still relevant today. Crain says she's often approached by students who are surprised at how much they enjoyed the opera, once exposed to it.

"They realize that this is about emotions that real people have and expressions that people have," she says. "It teaches them about that sense of connection with other people."

As for the live performance itself, on a stage in front of parents, siblings and friends, Crain insists that it's an experience the students "will remember for the rest of their lives. They will always think of opera as something that is exciting and fun. They will remember it as a very special magical time--when they created magic for the people in the audience."

Where and When What: "A Place to Call Home," performed by San Fernando High School students. Hours: 11:30 a.m. May 8 at San Fernando High, 11133 O'Melveny Ave., San Fernando. Other performances: Other San Fernando Valley high schools performing the opera at 11:30 a.m. are Taft High, Woodland Hills, May 4, and Grant High, Van Nuys, May 5. Price: Free. Call: Llewellyn Crain, the L. A. Opera: (213) 972-7219.

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