It was their first rehearsal at Guild Hall.The 13 actors burst in through the stage door, shrugged off their coats and scarves, and barreled onto the stage as accompanist Kyril Bromley warmed up at the piano.
They call themselves the True Blue 52 Opera Company. And all the talent is in fourth grade.
“Okay, ladies and gentlemen,” Springs School music teacher Margaret Thompson announced in the East Hampton-based home of the John Drew Theater. And then under her breath out of earshot, “This is our first time after two weeks off, so …”
She laughed nervously and turned her attention back to the children milling about the stage. “Take your places! Let’s try to do the whole thing. Standby! Yes, girls?”
“Can we go to the bathroom?” a few students piped up, hands raised high above their heads.
“Quickly!” Ms. Thompson said, feigning exasperation.
She knows the routine by now, having been with the 17-year-old company—which will premiere this season’s original production, “Dogs Don’t Talk,” on Wednesday, January 15, at Guild Hall—since its start. Almost.
“I missed the first year,” she explained. “I don’t want to say it’s the very best thing that we do at Springs School, but it really is. It’s the thing I love the most. This is just so exciting.”
It all began in 1997, reminisced Sue Ellen O’Connor, the opera’s coordinator and founder, when she received a mailing from the Metropolitan Opera Guild that caught her attention. It was advertising the “Students Compose Opera” program—a semester-long workshop on libretto writing, music composition and theatrical staging for the children, by the children—and was seeking schools to participate.
Ms. O’Connor enlisted Springs School immediately, she said. And after that inaugural class, she knew they were onto something. This production was here to stay.
“I saw the difference it made in children’s lives. I saw it empowered them,” she said, looking up at the stage. “I saw it tapped into talents and experiences that they never knew they could have. It challenged them beyond what they ever thought they would be in the fourth grade. And it showed that kids in the fourth grade are capable of a lot more than people might think. Once we’ve done the opera, they feel like, ‘I can do anything.’”
The lengthy application process starts in the spring, Ms. O’Connor explained, adding that every child who completes it and auditions gets a part—be it an actor, a writer or a set and costume designer. Sometimes, a student will have more than one job, she said.
The first week they return to school in September, the company—this year’s 52 students—sits down to brainstorm and to have a very honest conversation about their fears, their concerns, their hopes and their goals.
Then, the writing team develops a cast of characters and writes a story around them. It takes just 2½ weeks, Ms. O’Connor said, Monday through Thursday after school.
“I know, it’s fast,” she said. “As soon as we get a song, the writer kids run it to the music room and give it to the composer kids, and they start working on it. It’s character-based, for sure, more than plot-based. You’ll see.”
This year’s opera revolves around a group of Springs students preparing for the Green and White Field Day—a longtime tradition at the school—who deeply confide in their dogs and, eventually, in one another. Once they get past their rivalry.
“I’m the captain of the White Team and I’m under a lot of pressure in the play, but my dog, Zoey, helps,” actor Nora Conlon said of her character, Lydia. “Even though she’s scared of everything.”
“And I’m just desperate for everyone to come to my 10th birthday party,” added actor Corrina Castillo, who portrays Lydia’s teammate, Talula. “All the Green people are like, ‘I’m not coming,’ and I’m like, ‘But you have to!’”
As the story unfolds, it becomes one about friendship—a bond felt both on and off the stage. The students and teachers are invested in one another, even through taxing rehearsals and endless stage blocking.
Nearly 90 minutes into practice—their longest yet—Santiago Maya has had enough.
“Hands out of your mouth, Santi!” Ms. O’Connor shouts from the seats. “What are you doing?”
“My tooth is gonna fall out,” he mumbled, a few fingers muffling his words.
“Well, don’t do it now,” Ms. Thompson said.
“Leave it alone, leave it alone,” Ms. O’Connor urged.
He fiddled with it until the final number—marking the first time the company staged the play in its entirety—but the tooth stayed firmly attached, not yet ready to come out.
“I can’t believe we did the whole thing,” Ms. O’Connor breathed a sigh of relief. “I’d never seen it from start to finish.”
She stood at the edge of the stage as Ms. Thompson joined the students already sitting in a circle.
“I must say, everyone, after being away for two weeks, I was loving it,” the music teacher said. “I was loving it, especially the first half. I thought that some people really brought it. I thought we would be really behind.”
“I was really impressed,” Ms. O’Connor agreed.
“Give yourselves a pat on the back,” Ms. Thompson prompted. The kids dramatically pantomimed and hopped off the stage. “I was really proud of you guys.”
But they were too busy slipping on their coats, bundling up their scarves and scooting out the door where they had come in to hear her praise—leaving the first two rows of the theater as empty as when they’d arrived.
The Springs School True Blue 52 Opera Company will open its original production “Dogs Don’t Talk” on Wednesday, January 15, at 7 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Additional performances will be held on Thursday, January 16, at 9:30 a.m. and 10:45 a.m., and Friday, January 17, at 9:30 a.m. For more information, call 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.