As Easy as 1, 2, 3: San Diego Opera in the Community

by Brie Stimson July 26, 2018


castOn the corner of Fairmount and Orange Avenue in City Heights there is a colorful green and yellow building where children of all ages come to learn, play and grow. Through the main building and up a set of stairs, past the courtyard, there is a small nondescript room where the next generation of singers, actors and musicians can be found practicing everything from Mendelssohn to Michael Jackson. That is where on a hot June day I met Salma and Oscar, two students who are part of the opera’s Words and Music program.

“I don’t get much opportunities to get involved in stuff like this,” Oscar, 12, tells me, “so I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get this all done and see where this can take me.” Oscar says he’s wanted to be a singer for the last four years. He and Salma have been involved in the program since its inception last year.

Salma, 11, says she always wanted to be a singer but never thought she would try acting, “but now I’m performing in front of lots of people and doing skits,” she beams. She’s also working on a script. “The main part of the story, it’s basically learning that people still care about you even though they might not be your family, but people still care for you,” she tells me about her script. “This character, she’s going through a lot in her life, dealing with depression and being sad a lot.”

And while there may be other after-school music programs around the county, most of them don’t involve professionals from the San Diego Opera. John Gabriel, education director of the San Diego Opera and teaching artist Joey Molina are two of more than a dozen opera people involved in the program. In total, there are 16 teaching artists.

“She has a great belt,” Joey says of Salma after she sings “What a Wonderful World” for us. “When we started the summer program going into the performance, one of the things I’m particularly proud of is their growth,” Joey proudly says about both of them. “Like Oscar, the role [of a father having trouble letting his daughter leave for college], he really grew into that role. It took him a little while to get it, but when he got it he was phenomenal … And Salma is … our star … She’s one of the most dedicated kids I’ve ever met. She’s always here. She’s always working.”

Between singing several songs I got a chance to talk to with the two preteens who, casually dressed in a t-shirt and khaki shorts and a flannel shirt with leggings respectively, pulled up a chair in the center of the room and spoke in language beyond their years.

“A dream came true for all of us,” Oscar says about their first performance last fall at the City Heights Library Weingart Performance Annex. “We put in all our heart, our sweat and our hard work.” He tells me they performed in front of more than 100 people. “I never thought this dream of mine for four years would ever come true because when you think about it, not a lot of people my age get this opportunity to meet these amazing people who teach you these amazing things,” Oscar adds. John makes a joke that he paid him to say such nice things and Oscar jokes back, but there’s no question he means what he says. Oscar further explains that when he originally heard about the program he was skeptical, but “I tried it out, and I liked it a lot.” He says one of the biggest moments of his life came true when he performed in front of the crowd at the annex.

There’s no getting around the fact that these two are performers. Salma says she’s loved performing since she was little. “When I was like three, my sister she was in love with Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies,’ and I would always dance in my diaper jumping up and down,” Salma laughs; And they both agree the program has helped them with their confidence.

The opera was connected to the La Maestra Foundation and the Center for Youth Advancement through their partnership with Teatro Izcalli, a Chicano theater organization where they implement some of their educational programs. “A large anchor arts institution like San Diego Opera can have really super meaningful impact in communities that are not always regular patrons of these institutions,” John tells me.

“The program at La Maestra has been an opportunity for young people of diverse refugee communities to showcase their artistic talent,” Macedonio Arteaga, Jr., executive director of Teatro Izcalli adds. “It is a unique space because we do not set a limitation on what the young people can do. At the last performance we had at the City Heights Annex theater, we had a parent tell me that she could not believe that the students where capable of performing at such a high level. It was an interesting comment – I responded by telling her ‘well it never dawned on me that they couldn’t do it.’  This is what this work is all about.”

Throughout La Maestra there are colorful walls painted with smiling people, trees and depictions of exotic, far away places like the Great Wall of China. Repurposed tables are painted in similarly colorful motifs. The sounds of happy, laughing children doing an assortment of activities echoes through the halls – a respite amid the heat and cement of City Heights.

“San Diego Opera and [La Maestra] Community Center got together and designed a program where our teaching artists will work with the students at this community center so we, the opera, and Izcalli bring the curriculum, the professional teaching artists and all the arts expertise,” John says. “And La Maestra is a community center with wraparound social and emotional health services, after school programs and all sorts of family and community support resources. It’s a really efficient and effective way for arts organizations big and small to meaningfully connect with youth in City Heights.”

Along with La Maestra, San Diego students participate in the program at Burbank Elementary, Memorial Prep, Knox Middle School and Lincoln High School.

“They tell their own stories using words and music,” John adds. “Opera being sort of a traditionally grand art form, the connection is storytelling with music. So the stories come from the students – the music is usually more culturally relevant and comes from the music from the community.”

“Those students also attend the Student Night at the Opera program on a regular basis, and their experience in the theater watching professional opera on stage informs how they put together their own productions,” John explains. “Students will make comments about ‘oh that lighting effect was really neat’ or ‘oh those costumes were really neat’ and’ I understand why the lighting and costumes were this way cause it helped tell the story.’ They bring that experience back into their artist residency program.”

“It’s pretty amazing, this Student Night at the Opera program being decades long. Our technical director, for example, he attended Student Night at the Opera as a kid along with lots of other San Diegans and lots of other subscribers and current patrons for San Diego Opera.”

We finish our time with Salma and Oscar by clapping along with Salma while she belts (after just a little bit of coaxing) the Jackson 5’s “ABC.”

“ABC, as easy as 1, 2, 3.”


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