The warming rays of the sun pass through my windshield as I head in south on the I-5 freeway. The glamour of nearby Hollywood and Los Angeles has dissipated as more gravel is added between them and my vehicle. What becomes of the surrounding geography is industrial. I find myself veering off the freeway and driving into a territory I am unfamiliar with. “Pioneer,” I call myself, as I bravely venture forth; coincidentally, Pioneer is the name of the street that leads me to my destination. I arrive at an elementary school glowing with generations of experiences, hopes, dreams, failures, successes and life-changing direction. Unbeknownst to me, my being would become a part of the layers of life-changing direction.
It is my experience at Cesar Chavez Elementary in Norwalk, California, with the Elementary in School Opera that has tainted my soul for its betterment.
I gaze upon this school, the oldest in the Norwalk-La Mirada School District, with such curiosity. The architecture is something out of an episode of Leave it to Beaver, and for a moment I feel I can actually smell the mischievous ways of golden child Eddie Haskell. Built in 1923, this building has served dutifully as a city hall, Norwalk’s school district central office, and an elementary school under numerous pseudonyms with a common goal – to educate the people of tomorrow. There is no sea-breeze, no bustling streets, no cacophony of yells, horns or construction. There is only quiet, not silence, just quiet. Walking into the beautifully aged school I am told to follow the sounds of laughter by a pleasant office worker and sure enough, just around the bend, a line of children and parents stretch out to the blacktop savior of teachers, and students, known as the playground.
They have all come to see The Prospector, which requires the collaboration of some of the hardest working people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. There are no words I can place on paper, or the internet, that would give justice to anyone who worked on this beautiful project.
Squeezing into the double doors, I found myself in the quintessential elementary school cafeteria thinking on the struggles all of our public schools are facing today. Since Spring of 2011 over 26,000 pink-slips have been distributed to teachers by the California State Government. There has been a 5% decrease in funding per student from 2007-2008 and the fear of dropping to a 10% decrease is gradually becoming more of a reality. The arts, what we at the Opera House live and breathe, are being tossed to the curb by schools in order to focus funding on bettering assessment test scores in order to increase school funding. Catch-22. However, this school in Norwalk, California, has a faculty dedicated to incorporating as many arts programs as they can.
The cafeteria is dark, with relatively low ceilings, and its inhabitants are squeezed shoulder to shoulder with each individual squirming for any space they can find. I glance to the wall checking the fire code posting on the legal limit of people allowed inside – we might be over. As I made my way to the back securing my corner to stand in and the storm had finally settled… my breath was gently ripped from my lungs. Just over 60 young students, dressed as coyotes, sit quietly in front of a decorated stage on miniscule risers patiently waiting direction from their director. How glorious.
A man calmly takes control of the audience. From the instant he speaks the crowd listens. He is obviously respected and from his interactions with the students, teachers and parents his position of principal is worn well. Immediately words on the importance of the arts emit from his lips. He shares his gratitude with the teachers who pushed incorporating this program. Applause erupts. The lights dim slightly and the director of The Prospector commands the audience with a simple “Hi.” He is obviously a singer as his low resonant sound caresses the ears of the inhabitants in the packed cafeteria. He gives a brief synopsis of the soon to be performed opera while incorporating the perfect amount of goofiness to engage the children sitting Indian style in front of the performers.
The show starts.
What happened next is something, a welling emotion, I am honored to be part owner of.
This collaboration of peoples have taken a sinking ship, patched it up amidst a storm and created a new North for its precious cargo to follow. It was the epitome of what performance art should be. For a short amount of time, The Prospector, created a communal experience that instilled feelings of happiness, sorrow and escapism for its audience and performers. The hardest of hearts could not withstand this magnificence.
The show ends.
Tears stream down my face and I let them rest for a while as they have deserved to share this 10 week journey ending with this unforgettable experience. A soft spoken teacher gently places her hand on my shoulder. “You are walking on water. You are changing people’s lives.”
I am so honored to receive this message, although I feel completely undeserving. All of the gratitude should be to those who put this opera on. They are the ones who created this memorable experience. They are the ones who changed lives. I was just lucky enough to be able to watch the show unfold from its beginning to the end – and for that I am grateful.
All of us there have become extensions of that school, of that show, of that experience.
We are an opera company and we have impacted lives for the better.
I am grateful for LA Opera. I am grateful for the Education and Community Development department. I am grateful to be a part of a team that desires to change lives.
From the bottom of my heart, Thank You.