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As the audience for the operetta Beautiful Dreamer filed into the Beacon Hill Elementary School gymnasium, the decibel level generated by the spectators rose higher than a soprano’s crescendo. It didn’t bode well for a performance intended to expose schoolchildren to light opera and in this work, a message against cyberbullying.
Keeping the audience from squirming or talking is no easy task when its members range from pre-K to sixth grade, as did the group of 460 arrayed on the floor at the elementary school on the city’s near Westside.
“When you have kids right in front, you have to entertain them constantly,” said William McCrary, associate professor of music at the University of Texas at San Antonio and director of its Lyric Theatre. “We use a lot of comedy to present a serious message.”
McCrary has been writing and producing operas for local school-age audiences for 15 years. The Opera Guild of San Antonio, which has a decades-long tradition of sending volunteers to schools for opera education, provides underwriting and volunteer support. Together, the partnership has reached 200,000 local students with original operas written by McCrary and produced by students of the UTSA music department.
On Monday afternoon in Beacon Hill, McCrary sat before a keyboard and laptop near the gym’s improvised stage area. Right now, the 35-minute operetta is in “workshop” form – accompanied only by keyboard – until Ethan Wickman, composer and associate professor of music at UTSA, adapts it for more instruments this summer. Since McCrary fashioned the operetta’s music from the songs of Stephen Foster, productions starting in the fall will feature a bluegrass band, Down for the Count, comprised of a banjo, fiddle, bass and drums, and a string quartet.
“The arrangements are more complex than Foster’s songs,” McCrary said, “and we wrote a new song for the finale that’s Fosteresque.”
Once the clear, strong singing of UTSA music students began the story of Little Mac, the children quieted and watched attentively. The gym’s tile floors and concrete walls made for acoustics that can only be described as shrill, but the children laughed at all the jokes and tittered when 25 of their schoolmates came on stage dressed as mice and green monsters.
The opera tells the story of a “beautiful dreamer” who prefers textbooks to texting and is bullied and un-friended because of it. The clever new lyrics to “Old Folks at Home,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and other familiar Foster songs and the script of rhyming couplets, were written by McCrary and his wife, Michelle Petri, parents of 8- and 10-year-old boys.
He told the students that his 8-year-old once came home and asked why kids made fun of his shoes. It got McCrary thinking – thinking in hip-hop rhythm, sung by strutting frogs. That number elicited even louder cheers than one in which the people of “Niceville” brandished smart phones as they danced and sang, “Cell phones are our weapon!”
Another verse brought to mind the serious damage cyberbullies can inflict:
“We are the voices of despair
We’re mean and cruel and just don’t care
The best part is we don’t leave our chair
Twitter is our weapon.
So if you’re nice and don’t fit in
Run far away ’cause we’ll log in
Social media cuts through the thickest skin.
Twitter is our weapon!
Hashtag post and threaten.”
After the finale, a joyful song of encouragement called “We’ll Be There!,” Kathleen Garrison of the Opera Guild presented the school’s music teacher, Sandra Haggray, with two books, Each Kindness and Zap! Boom! Pow! Superheroes of Music written by San Antonian Lucy Amen Warner.
The books and operetta reinforce a message simply stated on a poster on the gym door: “This is a NO BULLY Zone!”
McCrary said he sees potential for the operetta to be produced beyond San Antonio. The premiere performance of the fully realized piece is planned for Oct. 29 at UTSA’s Main Campus Recital Hall. The UTSA and Opera Guild team are performing the work at 20 schools in front of as many as 18,000 students this month.
“It’s a great way to open the conversation [on bullying],” said fifth grade teacher Felicia Alvarez.