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Mama Maria! Bennett Park opera tells the Montessori story

Think your school's theatrical production was ambitious this year? Try guiding a bunch of 3-to 13- year-olds through the process of creating, developing and staging an original opera, all while adjusting to the union of two once-separate school communities under the roof of a newly renovated building. Add a dash of Italian lyrics and a heaping helping of youthful exuberance and you've got "Maria's Lessons," the Bennett Park Montessori Center production debuting this weekend at the downtown library.

The culmination of three years' worth of dedication and artistry, "Maria's Lessons" is the result of a long-standing collaborative effort between Bennett Park and Musicians United for Superior Education (MUSE), a local educational group dedicated to promoting artistic expression and personal development through the use of music in the classroom and beyond.

The show is the second to have been staged by the partnership –in 2007, the original work "Mio Nonno Galileo" was performed in an effort to promote the school's Italian program, which was then at risk of being cut.

Since then, the value of such a production has taken on new meaning. In three years' time, the student body experienced a total of four moves as its Clinton Street facility underwent extensive renovations. Joining the students at their new, state-of-the-art school building are the roughly 300 kids who attended the former Montessori School 78. "Maria's Lessons" was launched in part to help ease this transitional period.

"It really was designed to unify two buildings [and] two different communities," says Lucinda Ingalls, executive director of MUSE. "Both schools of children are now working side by side with each other, and getting to know each other in a different way."

The opera is meant to link more than school communities. Its story line is centered around Maria Montessori, the turn of the century Italian educator who pioneered the curriculum followed by all schools who share her name. The Montessori method of teaching emphasizes hands-on interaction and interconnectivity of content areas. "Maria's Lessons" sings the praises of this philosophy, demonstrating its value in conflict resolution and self-discovery through a series of flashbacks.

Students were charged with the task of bringing each of the distinctive time periods featured in the opera –dating as far back as 1915 –to life onstage. MUSE teaching artists worked alongside students as they composed lyrics, designed costumes, laid out choreography, and created digital flash illustrations to accompany the performance. In the spirit of a full-length opera, the entire performance is sung, with Italian, a language taught at Bennett Park and Maria Montessori's native tongue, dispersed throughout.

The benefit of this second language is not lost on third-grader Iris Kahris: "We're not just learning to sing our lines, but we're learning how to speak and sing in Italian," she said.

To foster the kind of creative thinking needed to come up with all of this, elements of the students' day-to-day class activities have been linked with the opera. In literature, history, and even mathematics classes, students work to expand their opera-related abilities.

"What happens in the opera is actually based on what we do in school," said sixth-grader Linda Rodriguez, a member of the stage crew.

Kids were involved with all aspects of the production. Approximately 90 of the school's 800-plus students were assigned roles, but virtually every student at Bennett Park has participated.

Said Ingalls, "It is a perfect example of hands-on learning."

Performances are at 7 p. m. today, Friday and Saturday and 2 p. m. Sunday in the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, Lafayette Square. Tickets are $5.

Hans Glick is a senior at City Honors.

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