Tales of a fourth grade opera

Fourth grade opera
Each year for the past 13 years, fourth grade students at Linwood Elementary School in St. Paul have written and performed an opera. This year's performance marks Minnesota's 150th anniversary.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Standing in a circle of square dancers, this is all very new for fourth grader Alan Lee.

"I've never been in an actual opera before," said Lee.

But it's not that new for Linwood Elementary. This is the 13th year for the Fourth Grade Opera. And music teacher Kim Kroetsch has a warning of sorts -- don't call it a pageant!

Fourth-graders at Linwood Elementary School in St. Paul rehearse the opera they've written to honor Minnesota's 150th anniversary.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"We're not taking a musical from a textbook," she said, sitting in front of a group of students. "We're not taking music that's been written by adults, the students have created the story, right you guys?"

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The students responded with a resounding, "Yeah!"

"And the students created the songs and created the set, so it's from them. And that's the difference," Kroetsch added.

Kroetsch's duties include writing the actual sheet music after the students create the songs.

"I work really hard starting in kindergarten so that they're ready for the fourth grade opera," said Kroetsch, "So they have the singing skills to really pull it off. Because if they don't have the singing skills, it would be a long opera for the audience."

The show opens with the song, "North Star State," a proclamation of all things Minnesota. It's the Gopher State, the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

"If they don't have the singing skills, it would be a long opera for the audience."

Then come the state symbols: The state song ("Hail, Minnesota"), the state beverage (milk), the state fish (walleye), even the state muffin (blueberry).

This and the other tunes actually come near the end of the students' work. They've read about Minnesota history, then came up with a storyline, then wrote the songs.

Adults help the most by whittling through all the ideas the kids came up with, and shepherding everything into a somewhat coherent performance.

One idea that didn't make it, for example, was "a two-headed monster that likes to eat snow cones," according to Ed Williams, Jr., the opera's director.

"They were defining the myth of why there's snow in Minnesota," Williams explained. "And there's a two-headed monster who likes to eat snow cones, and it accidentally falls off and lands on Minnesota. That's fantastic!"

But it didn't make it into the final production.

"We ended up going a different direction," Williams added.

'It's fun'
Fourth grader Anna Thomason says the past three weeks she and her classmates have spent on the opera are "funner than normal school."
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

What did make it is a coming-of-age story of some selfish fourth graders who need to learn a lesson, and magically go back in time to the Minnesota of yesteryear.

That's where they meet fur traders and lumberjacks and farmers, who actually have to work really hard to get what they have. And without giving away the ending, maybe there's hope that the selfish kids will gain a little appreciation.

Linwood A+ Elementary is a magnet program in the St. Paul School District, located in the city's Summit Hill neighborhood. The school injects art into all curriculum.

Every year about this time, the fourth graders stop their usual class schedule and work on the opera for three weeks.

Anna Thomason doesn't mind.

"It's really fun and I always wanted to be in it. It's funner than normal school," Thomason said.

Principal Steve Unowsky says the opera even helps the school meet state requirements.

"Every student in Minnesota should be reading fourth grade, nonfiction texts about Minnesota. Our students are doing that," he said. "Every student in fourth grade should be writing significantly about Minnesota, or writing nonfiction stories. They're doing that with regard to this opera."

Another reason to consider going to the show is to find out what it's called. It's the students' opera, after all, and at last check, they hadn't yet agreed on a title.

The opera premieres Thursday Mar. 13 at 6:30 p.m., with another performance Friday morning.