Early in the first act of the opera Four Journeys to Minnesota, Ann, a beleaguered northern European woman and mother, huddles in a shawl and babushka, worrying over her knitting and waiting for her husband, Timothy, to come home. As Ann, Victoria Peters is playing against the stereotype of the corpulent opera heroine. She's tiny, in fact, maybe four feet tall when she stands on her tiptoes. You can't help but feel for her plight. When her husband appears a moment later, Ann entreats him to take her and the children to America, to deliver the family from a life of grinding poverty and hard work. Timothy is initially resistant to the idea, and a squabble ensues, enflamed by a swelling chorus.
By the next act, though, the family has boarded a ship for America, and in the tumultuous crossing the little boat is besieged by wind and waves, the storm-tossed sea represented by menacing dancers cloaked in swirling black and blue capes, with painted masks to match. As the ship rocks through the long, dark night at sea, the grandmother takes ill. The frightened family prays in vain for the restoration of her health; by the time the storm finally passes, the grandmother is dead.
I can think of no more poignant and bittersweet symbol of the age-old immigrant dream of America than a grandmother, played by a nine-year-old, dying at sea.
As part of its Minnesota history studies unit, the fourth-grade class at Ramsey International Fine Arts magnet school in Minneapolis writes and produces an opera every spring. Last year they tackled the Dakota Indian conflict. This year, in collaboration with visiting artists Kenny Kiser and Jake Wylie, the more than 100 fourth graders took as their theme the history of immigration in Minnesota, and the entire production--from the initial idea to the composition of lyrics and music to the creation of costumes and props--was completed in three weeks.
For all its clear-eyed and precocious understanding of the practical realities of the immigrant experience, Four Journeys to Minnesota was a remarkably exuberant and blessedly irony-free production, marked by a sort of sophisticated innocence--enlightened, almost--that seemed all the more astonishing coming from the fourth-grade class of an inner-city school. Then again, this is no ordinary public school, as evidenced by even a brief glance at the artwork that adorns the walls in the hallways and stairwells.
Just inside the front door is an elaborate, multilingual mural devoted to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Declaracion universal de derechos humanos. This amazing piece of guerilla art--and, remember, this is a kindergarten through eighth grade school--features liberal shout-outs to everyone from Langston Hughes and Leonard Peltier to Steve Biko and Sojourner Truth. There is a tribute to the Underground Railroad, quotes from, among others, Martin Luther King Jr. ("The greatest sin of our time is not those who have destroyed, but those who have stood idly by"), and a list of human rights violations and hate crimes that includes the My Lai massacre, the Trail of Tears, and the Duluth lynchings.
Yet in the moments before the production commenced, the second floor of the school was a chaos of what sure seemed to be entirely normal fourth-grade kids, chattering and rushing around in their costumes and brandishing props as a small group of teachers tried to marshal some order out of the confusion. At that moment, weaving through the mass of little bodies that were buzzing around in the hallway, the idea of a fourth-grade opera suddenly seemed like an impossibly ambitious notion.
An hour later, however, they had brought the whole thing off without so much as a hitch, safely transporting their European immigrants (absent, alas, poor grandma), as well as families of Mexican laborers, runaway slaves, and New York African-American industrial workers to Minnesota and relative safety. The music of the production was oddly stirring and appropriate to its various cultures; particularly impressive was the stomping field holler segment of the fourth act, which sounded like a lost Langley Schools Music Project cut from the Alan Lomax collection of American folk music.
Afterward, the participants were clearly proud of their work, even as they expressed relief to have the project safely behind them. Tessa Nichols-Meade, in her first year at RIFA, pronounced herself pleased with the performance. "I was water," she said. "We had to dance around the boat. You had to kind of focus and know your place, but it was pretty much an easy dance. It was fun."
Terrence Goodson, who played the patriarch of the African-American family that endures a wagon train journey across the country from New York, admitted that while he enjoyed the experience for the most part, opera's not really his thing. "I'm not really a colorful boy," he said. "I like to draw in black-and-white, and I like rap music and building stuff. And I love gym." Terrence also said he was a little disappointed in his role in Four Journeys to Minnesota. "I really wanted to be a Mexican," he said, "because I liked their hats. Or else a slave, because their part was bigger and I wanted to be up there as long as possible. The slaves got a lot of time, and I like showing my face, so I wanted to be one of them. I ended up being a factory worker, though, but because my fake dad wasn't there I got to play his part and drive the wagon train, so I ended up getting a little more time onstage, but still not like the Mexicans or slaves."