Playground Prodigies at PS 129

Kristin Gornstein as Hansel lost in a “forest” of PS 129 students, in “Hansel and Gretel.” | Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY TEQUILA MINSKYOpera education in primary schools? Sounds pretty ambitious, but not in the view of Odelphia Pierre, principal of PS 129 on West 130th St. in Harlem, who appreciates the arts.

“They just love it,” she beamed thinking of the third and fourth graders’ embrace of the Playground Operas, a program that has been evolving in her school over the past four years. 

Pierre knows well that her students are exposed to rap and hip hop, and now they get to study plot and create props and are excited to sing alongside professionals in operas performed in their school’s playground.

“They understand the caliber of the professionals they are singing with,” said the 27-year veteran educator in the city’s schools who has headed PS 129 for 18 years. “They want to read and understand the story, the characters, and the roles. It’s all part of the literacy element of the program.”

The school’s music teacher, Krista Wozniak, an opera singer in her own right, is the soul of the Playground Operas. She’s been at PS 129 for 10 of her 16 years teaching music in schools. She is also the board president of Opera on Tap, which has companies in 21 cities performing in alternative spaces like bar backrooms. The group emerged in 2005 at Freddy’s Bar and Backroom in Brooklyn’s South Slope. After seeing the success of several daylong family workshops that Opera on Tap ran with community groups, Wozniak thought about bringing opera into her school. 

Music teacher Krista Wozniak as Hansel and Gretel’s distraught mother. | Photo by Tequila Minsky

Wozniak worked with an enthusiastic third grade class to produce “The Magic Flute” in 2014. Over the next two school years, she got more classes involved, with presentations of “Cinderella” and “The Elixir of Love,” with professionals singing the principal roles in the original languages and a narrator sharing the plot in English.

Earlier this month, the Playground Operas created the well-known favorite “Hansel and Gretel,” this time sung in English.

Students form the production team, after eight two-hour workshops conducted by two teaching artists who are also professional singers. Making costumes and props — at times drawn from their own imaginations — the students illustrated the dreams that Hansel and Gretel have while asleep in the forest, presented as montages that they bring on stage while the characters sleep. For some students, this is the first art class experience they’ve ever had.

The kids also study plot and, loving the singing, they learn the chorus parts of the opera.

Wozniak proves that staging an opera — or any musical genre — can take place anywhere.

Teaching artist and singer Briana Sakamoto teaches and conducts the children in the chorus. In this production, they went through three costume changes — wearing student-made masks, embodying the dense forest, and portraying the wicked witches’ gaggle of gingerbread people called gingerdead. Students also had a number of non-singing, walk-on roles.

Live musicians accompany the entire production.

Principal Odelphia Pierre of PS 129. | Photo by Tequila Minsky

The other teaching artist, musician and classical singer Joy Jones (also, active in Opera on Tap’s New York chapter) sang Gretel, performing with the production’s other professionals.

Wozniak sang the roles of the mother and the ogress, explaining to the students that playing more than one role is common. Kristin Gornstein performed Hansel, and Benjamin Bloomfield sang the role of husband Peter the Broom-maker.

The audience included other classes participating in the program — seated on a covering on the schoolyard — with some younger children also brought in to enjoy the experience.

When rain forced one of the three performances — each presented by different participating classes — into the auditorium, more students were able to watch the production. 

Wozniak explained that she tweaks the experience each year based on what the previous productions have taught her and hopes to continue expanding the program.

“Children can be themselves in this program,” principal Pierre observed. “It’s something they really look forward to.”

Wozniak would love to see other schools adopt the program, even as she acknowledged it takes a lot of enthusiasm to shepherd it to success.

Participating students from PS 129, asked to give written feedback, mentioned the fun of making masks, their love of singing, and — of course — their thrill at performing for their parents, who no doubt were every bit as delighted.

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