By the end of third grade, many students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Further, they use writing to a greater extent to help tell stories and they begin to comprehend more complex literary works.
For third graders at Jefferson Elementary in the Normandy Schools Collaborative, part of their learning this year is a unique opportunity to write the libretto to an original one-act opera, “The Big Bad Day,” inspired by the childrens book “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” by Jon Scieszka.
This isn’t an everyday school recital. The students are working with professionals from Opera Theatre of St. Louis and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The opera will have its public debut tonight at the Touhill Performing Arts Center at University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ work at the school began in early September.
“Those children came back every class period…and they came with it! They knew their parts, they asked questions and we troubleshooted,” explained Valerie Smith, a retired longtime music teacher who is a teaching artist with Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Smith and Suzanne Palmer, the fine arts director for the Normandy Schools Collaborative, used Opera America’s “Music! Words! Opera!” curriculum to write the libretto. Together they extended Scieszka’s modernized take on the classic fable “The Three Little Pigs” and put the wolf on trial for huffing and puffing and blowing down houses.
While the special curriculum is designed for older elementary students, that didn’t stop the third grade students’ creativity flow. “You know the creative minds of children…[a student] yelled out, ‘Maybe [the wolf] has corona!” Palmer said. “Valerie and I couldn’t write fast enough.”
Jefferson Elementary third graders also learned about the musicality of opera and combining multiple genres of music — hip hop, blues and traditional operatic styles included. “I know when [people] say ‘opera’ there’s a certain audience that gravitates to opera and we all appreciate traditional opera. But when Valerie brought in the music I thought, “Oh my goodness! This is more like ‘Hamilton,’” Palmer said.
The debut of “The Big Bad Day” also features fourth and fifth grade students and members of Normandy High School’s band as well as professionals from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
For more on introducing opera to younger audiences listen to our conversation with Suzanne Palmer and Valerie Smith on St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or clicking the play button below.
Normandy third graders wrote an opera — and they’re putting ‘the wolf’ on trial
Related Event What: “The Big Bad Day”
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 29
Where: Anheuser-Busch Theater at the Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis