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Student composes his own opera

By Marcel Smith

MAY 15, 2000:  A current TV ad reminds us that sometimes things just come together. That's exactly what happened recently at Eakin Elementary, when the school gave two performances of an opera written by one of its sixth-grade students, Evan Broder. It's noteworthy that a student this young would want to write an opera, doing both the libretto and the music himself. It's even more noteworthy that the opera is really pretty good, and that the school came together in a complex collaboration to bring the opera to life in the school's auditorium.

Eakin Elementary has been around for a while; it doesn't boast a state-of-the-art physical plant. As a venue for a world premiere, the school auditorium is pretty shabby. But what happened there was vital and delightful.

Evan Broder is an uncommonly bright and talented child, refreshingly courteous, quietly self-confident, and an easy conversationalist. He's interested in computers and is already doing some programming. He's also interested in drama: As a class project last year, Evan and a team of classmates did a play on the Holocaust, finding in it analogies with the American Civil War, which the class was studying at that time.

Needless to say, Broder is also very much interested in music. He plays several instruments--piano, violin, and his favorite, the viola--and he's a chorister with the Boychoir at the Blair School of Music. He has a special interest in opera, maybe because it combines drama with music. Many Nashvillians have seen and heard him on the Nashville Opera stage. Two years ago, when he was 9, he had a major singing role as one of the doomed children in Britten's opera Turn of the Screw, and he distinguished himself both as actor and as singer. In last season's Nashville Opera finale, Der Rosenkavalier, he was one of some half-dozen children in the cast. He already has a lot of experience as a public performer in opera and performs with secure confidence.

Given the opportunity to do an extracurricular assignment at school, Broder characteristically opted to do something out of the ordinary: He sought and got permission to write an opera. What's more, he was essentially given artistic control of his opus; he wrote the book and the music, he directed the staging, and he sang the meatiest role himself. The student composer based his libretto on a Chinese legend that tells how Earth once had 10 suns and would have burned to a cinder if the Emperor of the East hadn't ordered the suns destroyed. But as the emperor's archer shot the suns out of the sky, one by one, the ruler recognized that if all 10 were destroyed, life on Earth would vanish for lack of light and heat. Accordingly, one sun was saved at the last minute, and the other nine morphed into raucously brilliant crows.

It's a charming fable. And what Broder does with it--in a work that runs about 10 minutes--is charming as well. The libretto is less successful than the music, but it does present the basic story pretty efficiently. The one really demanding singing role is the narrator, sung quite effectively by Broder himself. The other parts are in fewer and shorter passages that can be sung by first-graders. (Evan's younger brother Aaron sang the Emperor of the East.) The working out of the action brought some two dozen singer/actors onto the stage and required a couple changes of scene. Amazingly, all this was handled with remarkable efficiency, so that the fable moved along cogently.

This colorful busyness would have engaged the audience of parents, grandparents, siblings, and classmates, even if the music had been done with one Oriental lute or a guitar. But in fact, the music was remarkably sophisticated, scored (thanks to computer software) for a dozen string players and piano. All but two of the string musicians were Eakin sixth-graders. The music had a suitably Oriental color and texture, effectively exploiting both bowed and pizzicatto sounds. The opera opened with an overture and closed with a postlude. In between, the narrator, the 10 suns, the emperor and his archer, and the dying human population whom the archer rescues sang attractively shaped melodies marked by some subtle syncopations. And though the orchestra's players were not from St. Martin in the Fields, they played quite capably.

Broder's opera is a bona fide artistic product, but even given his book and score, the opera would not have been possible without a lot of cooperation from his school. The sixth-grade string players, taught and conducted by Caroline Terranova, gave up part of their spring break and all of their PE classes to rehearse. First-grade teacher Celeste Mize devoted a big part of her class and activity time to preparing the children for their roles onstage. The school's art department built the ingeniously expressive scenery, designed so that quick scene changes could be cleverly made. And four sixth-graders volunteered to serve as the stage crew, responsible for lighting and changes of scene.

Although a fraction of the nearly full house was adult family who could be counted on to applaud and bestow bouquets, the majority of the audience consisted of Broder's classmates, who sounded their spontaneous delight in what they saw and heard, both during the performance and in enthusiastic applause at the end. Broder and his school can take deserved pride in what they accomplished together.

To all indications, this precocious 11-year-old can look forward to more creative successes as he pursues his interest in music and drama. But so long as Eakin Elementary recognizes and nurtures such talent within its walls, it too can look forward to other successes, from other students. Evan Broder's opera was surely a marvelous experience for him, but it was just as enriching for his collaborators--teachers and students alike--without whom this opera never would have gotten out of his head and onto the stage. That's exactly the kind of learning schoolkids need and deserve.

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