ESL students are to perform in a production they created
Arizona Daily Star
Jan. 28, 2008

By George B. Sánchez

Tucson, Arizona | Published:


"Let's have a party! Chicken patties!"

Hardly a typical opera chorus, but the line concludes the first act of "Jose the Bully's Time Machine," a bilingual opera that debuts Friday in the auditorium of Wakefield Middle School.

Written by English-as-a-second-language classes and staged by about 70 students, the production was created for and by students under the direction of the Arizona Opera. It is the inaugural effort of the Opera in the Schools program, a collaboration of opera staffers, artists and Arizona students.

On Thursday morning, Christopher Herrera, a singer with Arizona Opera and opera instructor for TUSD's Opening Minds Through the Arts program, led Yvonne Torres' intermediate ESL class through rehearsal.

More than 20 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders sang about parties, chicken patties and then their voices built into a chorus of "Oh No." Herrera stopped to correct them.

"When you repeat this in opera, you don't do it at the same level," he said. "You go softer to louder. It's called crescendo."

The scene embodies everything teachers, artists, students and administrators hoped the experiment would yield: English- language learners working on their language skills while learning about a new art form. Students also are building self-confidence and learning about the problems bullying causes.

TUSD hopes the opera at Wakefield, one of three middle schools with an Opening Minds Through the Arts program, will be a successful model to propel the arts-education program into other middle schools.

Arizona Opera, said Laura Baldasano, director of education and outreach, also benefits by getting a model for its planned 2009 summer camp.

"Jose the Bully" came about by chance, the adults say.

Planned production for another show with the Arizona Opera fell through, Baldasano said. With the production crew free, she approached Joan Ashcraft, TUSD's director of fine arts/Opening Minds Through the Arts, whose board includes Baldasano.

"I saw such incredible potential with those young people," Ashcraft said.

Administrators at Wakefield, 101 W. 44th St., were interested, she recalled, as was R. Darden Bradshaw, the school's arts integration specialist with Opening Minds Through the Arts.

In early November, three ESL classes were selected to develop a story about bullying. From about 15 different stories, Bradshaw said, a cohesive tale was crafted and divided into three acts. Since Nov. 26, students have worked in three groups to create stage sets, props and costumes, wigs and makeup.

"This is a lot of work for an eight-week residency. We're really cramming it in here," Herrera said. "The thing about the program is not the product but the process. They took ownership. Everything that will happen, they created."

The students pushed for the opera to be performed in Spanish and English, noted Herrera, who does not speak Spanish.

The opera's lead is Jose, a bully who travels in time, from the 1950s to the '70s, where he encounters cowboys and disco dancers, and eventually 2008. In the end, after a mishap involving Agent H2O, Jose, along with a female lead named Dulce, learns the error of his ways, to these lyrics: "It's over, it's over, the bullying is done. Dulce, Jose, you are forgiven. Let's go eat and have fun."

The production has resonated with students, from its anti- bullying theme to the chance for them to perform.

"It could be very exciting because you play someone else," said Angelita Muñoz, 13.

Angelita, who plays a character of the same name, has been learning English for 15 months, she said. A native of Cananea, Sonora, she now lives within walking distance of Wakefield.

At home, she listens to reggaetón, while her parents prefer baladas, Angelita said in Spanish. Opera was something new for her, and her parents like the project, she said.

"It's interesting because some people think opera is for old people, but opera is art," she said in English.

Alvaro Carrillo, 12, who has spoken English his whole life, had fun learning to sing. But stage fright was setting in last week for the youngster, who listens to rap and hip-hop at home.

"I'm scared to go out and see those people out there, like my parents and the whole school," he said.

Viviana Rivera, 12, said it was great to act, sing and memorize the lyrics. Her parents listen to banda, and Viviana said she likes R&B and rap. But opera was new and exciting, and she she said she hopes to teach her schoolmates not to be bullies.

This won't be the end of opera in TUSD, Ashcraft said. This semester, students at Lawrence Intermediate School began working on a trilingual opera in Spanish, English and Yaqui.

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● Contact reporter George B. Sánchez at 573-4195 or at

Jill Torrance / arizona daily star

If You Go

• What: "Jose the Bully's Time Machine," a bilingual opera written by middle-school English-language learners.

• Where: Wakefield Middle School, 101 W. 44th St.

• When: 6:30 p.m. Friday.

• For more information: Contact TUSD's Fine and Performing Arts/Opening Minds Through the Arts program at 225-4900 or Wakefield Middle School at 225-3800.


Gene Jones, founder of the Opening Minds Through the Arts program, was awarded $100,000 last summer as a winner of The Purpose Prize.

The award goes to retirees older than 60 who use their senior years to develop creative and effective solutions to social issues in the United States. Jones was praised for helping create OMA at age 84.