This Saturday's SCORE (Students Creating Opera to Reinforce Education) performance of "The Key" takes on subject matter which seems unlikely for the medium and for the age of the creators, who are mostly 10 to 15, and that's the way the kids are encouraged to roll.
"Every year the topic is different," said Deanna Cates, director of Operations and Programs for Hamilton Wings, the arts-based organization which runs SCORE, along with other educational programs.
If you goWhat: "The Key," an original opera written and performed by Hamilton Wings' SCORE students
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, July 19
Where: Blizzard Theatre at Elgin Community College, 1700 Spartan Drive, Elgin
"The one thing I hear every year is that the story line is always topical," Cates said. "This year the idea of computer hackers and identity being stolen was being developed about the same time as last year's breach at Target."
"The Key" involves hackers set on world domination, foreign diplomacy, love, intrigue and mystery, all of which may see beyond the scope of the average kid, but Cates begs to differ.
"I don't think students get enough credit for what they do know and that's another thing that we give them, the opportunity to share everything they know."
Students from Elgin Area U-46 School District are encouraged to attend SCORE, which begins recruiting soon after the start of the school year.
"The Hamilton Wings organization encourages students that aren't necessarily achieving. They have social or emotional barriers, whether it's their own perceptions or others'," Cates said.
Not every student who participates is struggling with these issues, but every kid finds a safe environment in which to share their thoughts and creativity, according to Cates.
Hamilton Wings contracts with theater professionals who work with the students on every aspect of theater.
"Many of them have never been onstage and never had an experience with professional adults," she said.
"The students get to see that they can make a living as an artist going forward in life, or a teacher."
This year's roster includes choreographer Zineb Chirabi, visual artist James "Casper" Jankowiack, vocal coach Cynthia Mace, and Scott Ferguson, who is serving as stage director for the 13th time.
"(The students) are at a perfect age for something like this," said Ferguson. "They're too young to be very critical. They don't judge each other like the older kids do. They're still young enough to be supportive of one and other and to make fools of themselves. They can let themselves go."
Although coaxing initially shy children into exuberant performers with a host of new friends can be a challenge, according to Ferguson, it is also a goal.
"They are in that creative period in their lives where socially, they are developing a sense of self. A lot of teachers may recommend them because the student might need more social interaction," said Ferguson, who works as a director and real estate agent in Chicago.
Ferguson is enthusiastic about the program and the young performers which he takes under his wing.
"They write the lyrics, the plot, the music, and create the costumes and set. There's nothing like it that I've ever seen," he said.
"I usually meet with them in October when they first come on board to touch on what theater is and what it means to be an actor," he said.
"I go over tools that an actor uses, like how to use their body and their imaginations because many of them have done nothing like this before." Which, for many of the students, is exactly the point.
The program begins with team-making activities and creativity-enhancing exercises. As the year progresses, the beginnings of an opera begin to take form under the guidance of Risé Jones, who acts as executive director and artistic director and John Rot, who works as the orchestrator and musical director.
"The concept is teams in a large group that make mass decisions," Cates said. "Within the large group, they can decide which team they want to be on to work with specific elements."
There are music and story development teams to begin the process.
"Once we get the music together we move forward into choreography teams," Cates said. "It's a little like an assembly line. After 14 years, we've got it down to a fine craft."
"They take your ideas and they try to incorporate your ideas," said 15-year-old Melody Contreras of Elgin, who attends Larkin High School.
"It's fun because you can do anything."
"I always thought of opera as really, really loud singing, like the lady with the horns," said 10-year-old Andrea Zavala of Carpentersville, who will enter fifth grade at Lakewood Elementary School in the fall. "But I always try new things."
"I thought it was like a show where you sing/yell," said Ivan Cervantes, 14, from South Elgin, who starts high school in St. Charles this fall.
Cervantes agrees with Zavala when it comes to the benefits of new experiences.
"It's scary. I have stage fright, but I always try something new," he said.
"At first, I was like, 'I'll go and I'd see if I want to,'" said Pedro Aranda, 15, from South Elgin High School, who is on the choreography team. "Then, I liked the teachers and thought it would be nice, and I made a lot of friends."
Now that the development and rehearsals are behind them, some of the performers are getting a case of the jitters. "I have been nervous, but
at the same time, I want to put on a good show," Aranda said.
"Being onstage is scary," agreed Cervantes. "Maybe my family will cheer and make me nervous."
Contreras is the exception to the rule as she has been interested in theater since elementary school.
"I've always liked performing," she said.
"I'll being able to sing and dance and show what I have. I'm not nervous but I will probably be nervous the day of," she added.
As they look back, the young performers consider a variety of benefits from their time with SCORE, from making new friends to college credits (all participants earn three college credits).
"I liked making the teachers happy that I participated and showing a lot of focus and doing our best," Aranda said.
Everyone seemed to agree that testing your wings in a new venture is what life is all about.
"You should try new things, even if you're uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable with doing this. Get out of your shell," advised Zavala.
"It's a great opportunity. It's not a bad thing to try something new," Aranda said. "Don't be afraid to try new stuff."
For details, visit www.hamiltonwings.org.