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Nobody ever told the kids they couldn't write an opera

Eight-year-old Homa Arvin plays the lead in ``The Adventures of Paddington Bear,'' this season's newest premi`ere on the San Francisco opera scene. And to save her voice during dress rehearsal, an understudy sings her lines from the orchestra pit. ``It's just like real opera,'' says Maia Aprahamian, ``with understudies and all!'' Ms. Aprahamian has been a resident composer with the San Francisco Unified School District since early October, and it has been her students, third- and fourth-graders from the Sutro Elementary School, who conceived, wrote, and performed ``Paddington Bear.'' Opening night played to a packed house of not only parents but also seasoned opera critics, as well as directors of major opera companies from throughout the United States.

It's no accident that the premi`ere of ``Paddington Bear'' coincided with the annual conference of Opera America, the nonprofit association of professional opera companies in North America. Opera representatives met for three days in San Francisco in December to discuss the future of opera, including a newly developed textbook series on opera education for Grades K-12. Earlier in the year, Sutro Elementary School was selected to test the ``create-and-produce'' portion of the new curriculum materials, and Aprahamian walked the students through the entire process of creating an opera.

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``Nobody ever told the kids they couldn't write an opera,'' said Aprahamian, as she tuned a violin for an expectant orchestra player. ``We got them used to singing everything they did throughout the day, and it became natural for them to extend that idea into a play.''

``Paddington Bear'' is a three-scene opera, complete with arias and recitatives, limited only in tonal range, given the high-pitched voices of eight- and nine-year-olds.

``Every kid on that stage knows the entire opera by heart,'' says Aprahamian. ``It's their opera. They wrote it, and they know it, every line.''

The 25 young people in the orchestra pit play the entire 45-minute work without sheet music. They wrote it, and they know the score as well as the lines being sung on stage.

As part of this special project, they have had their own opera season this fall, with visits by Young Audiences' Opera Bus and the Opera-Go-Round. In addition, the San Francisco Opera Guild provided tickets so that the youngsters of the Sutro Opera Company could attend a matinee performance of ``La Boh`eme,'' where they were treated to all the scene changes, with the curtain left open between acts.

Aprahamian sees her students as future composers and performers; the people on the business end of opera see them as potential audience members. ``I always said opera's an active art form, and the members of the audience have to take an active role,'' says Lotfi Mansouri, general director of the San Francisco Opera. ``It's delightful the way they cheer the hero and boo the villain, and it becomes very much alive for them.''

With the help of some major-league players, like the San Francisco Opera, which lent professionals from its makeup and props departments, ``Paddington Bear'' was deemed a success. Additional support for the project was provided by a group called Opera Partners, which includes the San Francisco Opera, San Francisco-based LEAP (Learning Through Education in the Arts Project), the Junior League, the San Francisco Education Fund, the local Opera Guild, and the San Francisco CITY Fund.

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The program is a model that Opera America hopes will be picked up in cities throughout the United States. If the success of ``Paddington Bear'' is any indication, a similar program could be coming soon to a school auditorium near you.

A headline in the San Francisco Chronicle probably best sums up the success of the venture. Printed under a picture of young Homa Arvin - arms outstretched and singing in full voice, in the leading role of Paddington Bear - are the words ``Move Over, Pavarotti!''

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