With two and a half weeks before opening night, the Fire Starters Opera Company was finishing costumes and sets, rehearsing arias and making sure mailers went out -- and that was just before recess.
Mary Ruth McGinn's 19 third-grade students at Stedwick Elementary School in Montgomery Village have spent the school year writing and composing their own opera, called "The Storm Within." The story follows a sister and brother who discover the existence of a long, lost sibling while at a campground. It centers around the theme of longing -- whether to meet a sibling or to fit into a group.
The students design and create sets and costumes, wire stage lighting, generate publicity and manage -- with the help of their teacher -- the roughly $1,500 budget, funded through private donations. The work will culminate in performances May 8 and 9.
"The opera process is used as a vehicle to teach everything these kids are supposed to learn," McGinn explained. Producing an opera allows students to apply reading, writing, math and problem-solving skills in a way that gets them excited to learn.
Students work during class for two hours once a week, rehearse after school twice a week and sometimes give up part of their recess to finalize details, said 9-year-old Alexa Enriquez, the opera's production manager -- or the "second boss," after McGinn, as Alexa described her job. The students run the show, with McGinn often relying on Alexa to direct the students in their jobs.
Parents are also asked to commit, attending monthly meetings, McGinn said. But some parents are not fans of the project.
"People tend to see this as an arts education program, and that's not what it is at all," McGinn emphasized. "Whenever you mention opera, people immediately go to fluff or, 'Oh, this must be done after school,' or 'Oh, so you do this when you're finished with your work?' ... No. This is the curriculum."
McGinn has been overseeing elementary school operas since 2001. In Montgomery County Public Schools, she has directed second-graders at New Hampshire Estates Elementary in Langley Park, where she was for five years, and Jackson Road Elementary in White Oak, where she was for one year. She also oversaw three operas while on a Fulbright Scholarship in Spain, where she plans to return this summer to train 25 new teachers at Madrid's Royal Opera House.
McGinn, in her second year at Stedwick, wants to see this kind of program take off in the U.S., starting with Montgomery County.
Because of a nationwide emphasis on standardizing curricula and finding new ways to measure student achievement, this kind of project can seem difficult to fit into the classroom, said Stedwick Principal Peggy Pastor. "It's been hard to believe that you could spend your time doing anything engaging because everyone was so focused on the test-taking."
But Pastor has stood behind McGinn and encouraged other teachers to start their own projects.
"It makes [learning] personal. It makes it lifelong," she said. "And it's something that they enjoy."