The Burning Rice Fields
Author: Jean Wharton
Children shine brightly in opera performance
A children’s opera sounds like a lofty endeavor. Opera in itself evokes notions of sophisticated, highbrow entertainment, far too refined for a group of children ages 6-10. Hilton Head Island, for all its amenities, attractions and appeal, certainly does not have the reputation as a mecca for opera enthusiasts. On November 2, 2007, the elementary students at Sea Pines Montessori Academy proved those previously held notions false when the cast of The Burning Rice Fields took the stage at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina.
When school started in August, the two elementary classes, comprised of 28 first and second graders and 17 third, fourth and fifth graders were introduced to the Japanese folk tale, The Burning Rice Fields. It is a story of a small rural village in ancient Japan. The village elder is resolved that her life no longer has purpose and will go to the mountains to await her death. Her last possessions were taken from her by the village’s evil feudal lord and his warriors. While atop the mountain, her wisdom attunes her to the subtle changes in the landscape and animals surrounding her, warning her of an approaching tidal wave. The old woman, in an attempt to save her people, burns the rice fields to draw them to the safe, high ground of the mountains. In return, the villagers erect a temple in her honor and restore purpose to her life.
Learning the story was the first step in a three-month-long journey that led up to the performance night. SPMA’s music teacher, Jevon Daly, began to teach the classes the music and lyrics of the opera. Strumming his mandolin and directing the students to sing in a high, theatre-ready voice was a new experience for this veteran of the Hilton Head Island music scene. Daly prepared the children for their chosen parts and worked diligently to have them proudly sing with a smile.
From an academic perspective, the teachers in both classes immersed the students in studies of Japan to give geographic, historic and cultural understanding and respect for the story. Montessori curriculum, for the elementary age, is a holistic approach wherein numerous subjects are intertwined which, in turn, encites the students’ curiosity and imagination. The opera was a great opportunity for the teachers to lace history lessons, with music, geography, literature and art.
Preparation for the opera was underway far beyond the walls of the classrooms. An army of parent volunteers were just as busy as the students, making costumes, designing backdrops, creating sets, collecting props and working on advertisements. Their steadfast dedication set everyone involved in the opera up for success and attributed to the seamless performance.
The Burning Rice Fields was written and composed by Sanford Jones. Jones is a seasoned Montessori educator and lecturer who came to SPMA with his choreographer wife, Judy Jones, to direct the opera. Mr. & Mrs. Jones, founders of Youth Opera International, spent a week of intense rehearsals with the cast, assisting with stage direction and choreography. Both director and choreographer had a seemingly endless supply of energy and patience. This marked the 300th performance for Mr. Jones.
After one week of busy rehearsals, the cast was ready for their big night. The excitement in the theatre was palpable, but nothing could compare to opera fever that was backstage. The cast of characters was comprised of: two narrators, one feudal lord, one moon, one sun, six kites, eight fishermen, six rice reapers, six mists of the morning, five feudal warriors, nine seagulls, 17 village children, three fire dancers, five Geisha girls, five cherry blossoms and four tidal wave. Some children played as many as three parts, making dressing rooms a place for anxious folly. The children shared supportive words of encouragement with one another, especially those with stage fright. The process of preparing for the opera bonded the children as a group, and it was obvious how proud they were of one another.
Everyone who was involved backstage during the week of rehearsals agreed that the performance was the best of the week, and Mr. Jones commented that the group of novice performers seemed like professionals. During the show, there were clearly scene stealers who captured the hearts of the audience or got a big laugh, but the entire cast was met with a standing ovation at their final bow.
SPMA plans to continue the opera program in future school years, and with good reason. Few things compare to the rush of pride that students had for themselves and classmates on that night. Giving children the opportunity to perform is a wonderful way to foster positive self esteem, secure close bonds with friends and teachers while nurturing a respect for the arts. Although, this year’s opera will be marked as the school’s first, it won’t be the last time the students impress upon the community that they are capable of amazing achievements.