Commissioning an opera about middle school life was a dream come true for Victoria Redfearn Cave, music and movement instructor and choral director at St. Anne’s-Belfield School (Virginia).
For the past four years, the school’s Learning Village Grades 5–8 choirs have performed a children’s opera in May. This year’s May performance, the opera Full Circle, was two years in the making. “I have been hoping for many years to commission a piece. In my 20-year career, this is a first for me, too,” Redfearn Cave says. “I wanted the children to be involved in creating a work on the ground level. They have been involved with the editing and creative process. They have witnessed the inner workings of a librettist and composer. The connection to the process only makes them more connected to the piece artistically.”
The librettist of Full Circle, J.J. Cromer, a high school humanities teacher at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, was previously a middle school teacher and jumped at the chance to become involved with Redfearn Cave and composer Russell Nadel of The Potomac School (Virginia). “Some of my initial ideas and investigations for the libretto focused on Aboriginal art from Australia, and the idea of circles stuck with me as I next explored Taoism,” Cromer explains.
Full Circle is a series of vignettes reflecting scenes from middle school students’ lives. A focus on interactions is evident in explorations of what happens at recess and in the course of the school day through student relationships with other students and adults. The vignette “Seeking a Circle” reflects Cromer’s thoughts throughout his creative process, while the lyric-less “Passing Judgment” is a poignant miniature of the pain caused by gossip, conveyed through the music and movement of fifth-grade students.
Using a child-centered approach to learning, Redfearn Cave acted as liaison between the students and Cromer and Nadel on an almost daily basis. “Our final work is not complete, ever, until we share it with the children,” Redfearn Cave says. “They added everything from plate spinning and tap dancing to powerful drawings about their feelings toward adults. They had conversations and arguments about their relationships with others and how they feel about school. It has been a complete privilege for me to work with the students and watch them connect so deeply to the piece.”