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Jan 12, 2016 3:19 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Springs School Opera Brings Local Story To Life

The cast of
Jan 12, 2016 3:50 PM

Sophia Rodriguez looked up from her seat in the third row of the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, beaming with excitement at the theatrical scene playing out before her.

On stage, her classmates belted out song lyrics while executing their blocking in front of the vivid, kaleidoscope-like backdrop.

“I just love how the stage is. It’s gradually getting bigger. It feels more bigger because they’re adding new stuff to it every day!” the nine-year-old exclaimed, pointing to the newly installed, fully functioning swing hanging from the proscenium arch.

That feeling is widespread among the cast and production team of this year’s Springs School fourth grade opera, “The Peacock’s Tale,” in which Sophia plays the titular character of Wanda the peacock.

Program coordinator Sue Ellen O’Connor said the character was based on a real peacock that lived in Springs in 1962—the year the opera’s story begins.

The Springs School’s nineteenth opera was inspired by the true story of two boys, Porfirio and Joseph Goncalves, who moved to Springs from Portugal and brought their love of football, what Americans call soccer, to the school and community despite facing a language barrier. They also owned a peacock who had a tendency to run up and down Springs-Fireplace Road.

While many of the past operas delved into fantasy, Ms. O’Connor said that this year she was looking for a story that was relevant to today’s world—a story that would resonate with the students performing it.

“They didn’t speak any English and they introduced soccer to Springs School,” said Ms. O’Connor. “I thought it would be a really timely topic.”

In December, students had the opportunity to meet the real Porfirio and ask him questions about his childhood and his accomplishments over the years, Ms. O’Connor said.

“It’s very inspiring to hear how successful and how far he went,” she said. “He went to college, made several kinds of records in sports and had a good career.”

According to the opera’s program, Porfirio went on to be a soccer kicker on the college level and eventually returned to Springs to manage estates. Meanwhile his brother Joseph created Seashore Inc. where he is a stonework artist.

Yandell Atariguana, 9, who plays Joseph in the opera, said he was excited at the thought of finally meeting his character’s namesake on opening night, January 20, when Joseph is set to attend the performance. Like Joseph, Yandell said he is an avid soccer fan.

“We do the World Cup—a game I play with my brother’s friends,” he said. “My brothers always get to score the goals.”

Students also consulted with Porfirio and Joseph’s sister Maria Goncalves, Coach Fred Yardley and one of their first friends Charles Marder, who recounted their memories at the Springs School.

Although reality provided the names of the characters and the premise of the opera, Ms. O’Connor said that the students were able to make the characters their own.

“We made up our own characters, making up the story the way we imagined it happened,” she said.

Nine-year-old Luke Baron was one of many students to perform the role they wrote during the extensive creative process.

“We wrote the whole thing in two-and-a-half weeks,” she said. “As they’re talking through the scene I’m writing it all down.”

Luke’s character, Ken, is loosely based on the 1962 Springs School baseball team, which Luke said was notoriously bad. In the show, Ken acts as an opposing force to the Goncalves brothers’ soccer ambitions.

“He’s just in love with the Yankees. He can’t stop thinking about it and his favorite player’s Mickey Mantle,” Luke said.

However, writing and performing are not the only jobs the students take on. There are also make-up artists, set designers, costume designers, public relations specialists, chorus members and composers who work together to bring the opera to life.

Arranger and accompanist Kyril Bromley has been with the opera program since its inception at the Springs School and witnessed the collaboration firsthand. Year after year he works as a guide to the composers and writers, who usually lack formal music training, to write the opera’s music and lyrics.

“Everyone has music in them,” said Mr. Bromley “What I’ve learned to do is how to draw that out by creating a musical structure … what’s the feeling, what’s the mood, rhythm, beats? They learn to pick the words and create melodies. And then they make a basic hook. The kids come up with it very well.”

The students also had the opportunity to attend Strauss’ ‘Die Fledermaus’ at the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan to get a grasp of what they were creating, Ms. O’Connor said.

“These kids have a walking knowledge,” she said.

This year’s opera features 16 original songs, including a few that were composed for and used in past operas, said Ms. O’Connor.

“We liked the song ‘Teacher’s Pet’ and we brought that back to use it again,” she said. The song was taken from an opera from 18 years ago.

“We keep it kind of traditional by bringing back some of the songs. We don’t always do that, but this year it kind of fit.”

Last year’s opera, “Bound For Gardiners Island,” is also returning in a big way, said Ms. O’Connor. In the spring the adventure story will be available to schools all over the country as a book.

“It will include the music from last year and will be in play form so kids can perform it,” she said. “It’s great for someone to learn how to read and write in dramatic form. It has all kinds of possibilities.”

Through the years at Springs, Ms. O’Connor said she has seen the visible impact the opera has on her own students.

“They remember every opera since kindergarten so they have expectations. They understand it. They have a sense of the quality and the level, she said. “A large number of students continue on to participate in drama at the high school. And then they’ve gone on to be music majors. It’s really a long-term impact.”

“The Peacock’s Tale” will be presented at Guild Hall in East Hampton from January 20-22.

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