Music has been a prominent force in 12-year-old Cesar Mendez's life.
"When I was little, I loved music; I had a CD that was my favorite," he said. "I had all these toy instruments that my parents would give me."
If you goWhat: "Destined Lives," an opera written and produced by 10-to-13-year-olds of Hamilton Wings
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, July 14
Where: Elgin Community College's Visual and Performing Arts Center Blizzard Theatre, 1700 Spartan Drive, Elgin
Tickets: $10; available at the ECC box office in the Visual and Performing Arts Center (building H). To purchase tickets, call (847) 622-0300 or visit elgin.edu/arts.
Still, as with most children his age, opera was never on his radar until his music teacher suggested SCORE (Students Creating Opera to Reinforce Education), an activity offered through collaboration between Hamilton Wings, Elgin Area School District U-46 and Elgin Community College.
This year's production, "Destined Lives," will be presented Saturday, July 14.
The program, which is in its 12th year, aims to use the arts as a vehicle to promote leadership, self-development and academic readiness among socially and economically challenged youth in the Elgin community.
Not all eligible youth jump at the chance of participation, however. In fall of 2010, when 14-year-old Alex Sharp, who will attend Larkin High School this year, first became aware of SCORE, she opted out. The next time it was offered, she had changed her mind.
"Last year, SCORE teachers came to Abbott and talked about it," she said. "I didn't really want to the first year, but my friends were in it and talked about how much fun they had."
Not all potential students need to be wooed, according to Deanna Cates, director of operations and programs for Hamilton Wings and vocal director and pianist for the production.
"After 12 years of SCORE, the word has gotten out that the activity is great fun," she said.
However, to the average young person, classical music inherently breeds preconceived notions stemming from a lack of knowledge concerning the art form.
"I didn't know much. I just knew singing and that's it," said 11-year-old Vanessa Robelo, who attends Channing Elementary School.
SCORE recognizes this hurdle and has designed workshops, which are presented in October, the beginning of the nine-month program.
"The biggest challenge is getting over the misconceptions they have about opera," Cates said. "It doesn't have to be sung in a foreign language and it doesn't have to be sung like at the The Lyric Opera. An opera is a story that is sung; it can be hip hop, it can be more pop."
Team-building exercises are part of the initial work before the opera project begins.
"At first, we started off with teamwork challenges to see how well we can work with each other," said Mendez, who will be attending Larson Middle School. "Everyone made friends with each other and we worked together. I thought it was going to be really hard at first, but afterwards it got really easy."
One of the exercises challenges teams of kids to build marshmallow and toothpick buildings.
"I led my team pretty good," Mendez said. "My uncle's an architect and he was looking at blueprints for the foundation and he showed me a few things, so when we first tried squashing it, it popped back up."
The 10-to-13-year-old participants from nine elementary and middle schools meet twice a month and are guided through mind-opening exercises to prepare them for the creative process of story telling.
"We give them a jumping-off point," Cates said. "We have them look at many forms of art, even an opera in a foreign language and they need to know by the expression, what is the story. What is the story behind this painting that you're seeing? If there is an image of a girl looking over a lush field, what's going on this picture? Tell the story."
The stories the children are inspired to create are called nuggets, and they are the raw beginnings of the production.
"We all were looking at paintings and wrote down a story to the painting, and the story development team, which I was in, we got together and picked our favorite nugget," said Sharp.
The opera is called "Destined Lives."
"It ended up being about a girl who betrays her best friend just so she won't die. And then we just added to it," said Robelo.
Once the "golden nugget" is chosen, the real work begins.
"The story line is created, the music is written, the words are created, the choreography," Cates said.
Although the idea of building an opera from scratch may seem daunting, Mendez found the process to be surprisingly simple.
"You work with other people and write poetry and then you change the words so they match and fit other people's ideas," he said. "It isn't really that hard."
A great deal of the reason the work isn't overwhelming is the participation of professionals in the entertainment industry who teach and mentor the kids. The staff includes Scott Ferguson, creator of the theatrical version of "Schoolhouse Rock Live!" who serves as the stage director; James "Casper" Jankowiak, who heads up visual art and has been commissioned for murals for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the Chicago White Sox; and Zineb Chraibi, who is on the faculty at Columbia College and will direct dance and choreography. Former SCORE participant John Rott is providing the orchestrations.
"Learning from the mentors can be as much fun as the writing," Robelo said. "It was really fun learning how to put together an opera and doing all the stuff we had to do during the year. It's been fun learning so many neat things. Like how you have to use your voice a lot, since we don't have microphones. You use it from your stomach."
"You learn a lot of stuff," Sharp agreed. "I'm not a singer, but I learned how to sing good and how to act onstage."
"We rely on (the mentors) to give the students a safe environment, to experiment, work side by side by with them so they can say 'I could do this as a profession; this is an option for me,'" Cates said. "To have that adult contact in a mentoring capacity, it's very valuable to the growth of the youth program."
Although the opera is the focus for the kids, Cates believes that the experience develops more than the chance to create and perform.
"Their individual growth experiences is the culminating experience of this entire program; the opera just happens to be a byproduct," she said. "With the cutbacks in school, we want to make sure that is sustained; it is part of making a well-rounded and whole child."
After "Destined Lives" has been performed, participants will be encouraged to serve the community with the SCORE 2 program.
"It's a community service initiative," Cates explained. "This program is entirely free, so they're giving back to the community that supported them."
Mendez sees another post-opera scenario where he is daydreaming in his least favorite class -- social studies -- this fall.
"I'm going to remember how much fun I had building and working together with other people," he said.