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The Big Read: Shades of Poe is a month-long celebration inspiring San Diegans to read Edgar Allan Poe through visual art, performances, music, exhibits, and celebrity appearances. Here’s a full schedule.

It might seem strange that one could find oneself sitting in a high-school auditorium watching an opera composed and directed by students collaborating with teaching-artists based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” but it happened and it was great. I found myself transfixed with the story, the presentation, the way the music fit the words (that the students devised as well) and how downright suspenseful it was. Right down to the laying of that final brick with mortar, closing up the tomb of the main character’s mortal enemy, I was hooked, just as if it’d been a performance of Puccini’s “Tosca.”

The event was the culminating ‘reader’s theatre’ presentation of the Words and Music program at Southwest High School this past October, a program that we in the Education Department of San Diego Opera have been running for the past ten years. Words and Music is a residency during which two teaching-artists — one a dramaturge or stage director, the other a composer and musician — work with middle and high school students and their teachers to write their own opera. After about ten weeks of toiling over the project, the opera hires professional singers and actors to come in and rehearse the opera in front of the creators, then perform it for the school. In my nearly fifteen years as director of education for San Diego Opera, this is the program that generates more pride than any other because it introduces students to the art form from the inside out.

There’s no better way to understand and appreciate art than to sit down and try to actually do art, and opera is no exception. Writing a beautiful text and attempting to set music to that text which helps to tell the story and communicate the feelings of the characters in that story is what opera is all about, even at the level of genius: Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini all did the same thing. And now the students at Southwest High have had that experience, and following it up by attending one of our mainstage dress rehearsals helped them to fully understand what it was that they were doing. What an exciting experience for all of us.

We were all especially grateful to Write Out Loud for providing us the opportunity to use Poe as the basis for a couple of these Words and Music residencies, based on the grant they received from the NEA through The Big Read initiative. The works of Poe lend themselves to musical (and dramatic!) setting, and I’m surprised that more composers haven’t tried to tackle more of his works for the development of an opera. French composer Claude Debussy tried, but was interrupted enough by other projects that he never completed it before his death. Rachmaninoff wrote a symphonic ‘cantata’ based on the poem “The Bells” and there are other minor works out there by a plethora of composers. But we still wait for the ‘great American Poe opera.’ In the meantime, the student version from San Diego’s Southwest High will have to do. Kudos to these young librettists and composers; it was a delight and an inspiration to work with them and see them grow.

Nicolas Reveles is the director of education and outreach at San Diego Opera. He’s speaking April 16 at The Athenaeum Library of Art & Music at 7:30 p.m. at Orpheus Speaks — The Music of Poe.

San Diego Opera — Words and Music student-written opera “The Cask of Amontillado” presented April 2 at the Lyceum Theatre at 7:00 p.m.


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