- Associated Press - Monday, February 19, 2018

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - From the audience, Lily Leach beamed when she saw the actress on stage tapping on a school desk with pink, sparkly drumsticks.

“They captured every detail,” said Lilly, a fifth-grader at The Academy at Lincoln Middle School, whose story “Finally Me” was adapted as an opera for the Carolina Theatre stage by professionals from Greensboro Opera and UNC-Greensboro.

School buses clogged a corner of the downtown theater district during three days of shows this past week as Lily’s classmates and every other fifth-grader in Guilford County Schools - some in suits and bow-ties and others in oversized hoodies and shorts - got to see her show.

Lilly, who bested hundreds of scripts from across the school system to have her work about a young girl in her sister’s shadow featured in this year’s Opera at the Carolina performance, says she felt like a celebrity when David Holley, the artistic director of Greensboro Opera, then called her on the stage and introduced her as the story’s writer.

“He said, ‘Lily, what is your favorite opera?’ ” said a grinning Lily, a personable honor roll student who will turn 11 in a few days. “I said, ‘Finally Me,’ of course!’ “

It was at the end of last school year that Lily and other then-fourth-graders participated in the popular “Write Your Own Opera” contest and gradewide writing exercise, with the winning entry to be cast and put to a musical score.

The contest, which also carries the name of Barbara Ann Peters, the former executive director of Greensboro Opera, is a collaboration among groups and local professionals who want young people to know that opera can be funny and interesting.

As part of that class writing assignment, Lily was to come up with a storyline and dialogue, with a beginning scenario followed by a conflict and a resolution.

About that time, Lexi, her next-closest sister in age, was also at Lincoln, where their sister Luci, 14, had excelled.

“It was really just my imagination,” Lily, who is involved in activities from gymnastics to soccer and attends theater camps in the summer, said of using that detail as the focus of an angst-ridden plot.

The process required producing a rough draft and weeks of writing, editing and fine-tuning.

And then her mother got the phone call.

“Isn’t that exciting?” Debra Jones, Lily’s fourth-grade language arts teacher, said of the girl’s seeing her words come to life. “That leaves such an impression. “

The story

Lily’s story picked up on the first day of sixth grade for a character named Danyelle, who is sleeping. When her mother comes to wake her, her older sister, Ella, already is dressed and anxious to get to school.

As Danyelle later slips into her homeroom, she sits in a desk next to a girl - the one tapping the pink, sparkly drumsticks on her desk - and, when the teacher takes attendance and comes to her name, the woman asks Danyelle if she’s Ella Fitz’s sister.

“Yes, I am,” she said, answering someone for the second time already that morning.

As the story unfolds, Danyelle feels the pressure to dance like her sister, who is as graceful as the ballerina they’ve seen in “Swan Lake.” When she dances in a performing arts class, the teacher tells her it doesn’t look as if she is having fun.

Danyelle responds that her passion is really singing. The next day she gets up early to practice the ballet routine, which is where her father finds her, frustrated.

“I just feel like I’m always stuck in Ella’s shadow,” Danyelle tells him.

“Just be yourself,” he tells her. “You can’t be anyone else.”

The production

A similar exchange actually happened between Lily and her dad, only she was trying to decide between gymnastics and competitive dance. Her older sisters all excel in competitive dance, but Lily prefers gymnastics, which she decided to pursue.

Holley, the director of opera at UNCG, had waded through a number of “Romeo and Juliet”-type entries - and others that involved the competition for another’s affections - when he came across “Finally Me.”

And almost instantly, he said, he began visualizing the storytelling.

At UNCG, Holley had conducted Grammy Award-winning Rhiannon Giddens in the operas “Little Women” and “Susannah.” Both productions won first-place awards in their categories at National Opera Association competitions.

He also liked the message of Lily’s piece.

“This one is something I think many children her age are experiencing,” Holley said. “It’s being in the shadow of an older sibling or not matching up to peer expectations and finding your passion.”

He called on composer Mark Engebretson, whom he had previously worked with at Opera at the Carolina productions.

For the opera’s big musical score, Engebretson tapped into the popular pop and rock music his own children were listening to - which often included a catchy and repeating hook.

Classmates were bouncing in their seats.

“I thought it was perfect,” Lily would later say.

A bit of ‘Swan Lake’

Where her written story had Danyelle’s waking up for the first day of school, Holley inserted a nightmare via video playing in a thought bubble on a screen - in which her sister masterfully is dancing to “Swan Lake,” followed by Danyelle’s clumsy take on the same dance moves.

He plays off a “Swan Lake” reference in the story involving the sister.

“He called to make sure it was OK with me,” Lily said of Holley’s talking to her mom.

To engage the young audience, Holley also added the words of the opera atop a screen behind the actors from UNCG, so his young audience could easily follow the dialogue.

Other changes included making the female homeroom teacher in Lily’s story into a male homeroom teacher - another primary character is a female teacher.

But he kept most of the dialogue - including the final lines, which come during a school progress report.

People threw roses at the sister’s feet after a ballet performance, but they also give Danyelle a standing ovation after she dazzles in singing that song Engebretson wrote.

“I’m not just Ella Fitz’s sister,” the character sings, “Now I’m finally me.”

Lily later autographed what would have been the cover of the printed theater program - in which she had put a silhouetted singer holding a microphone - for at least one admiring fan.

She said she hopes that her peers will remember the fun they had but also the point she wanted to get across to them.

“I’d say have faith in yourself,” she added.

Up next for the writer and aspiring actress - who now has a professionally produced opera on her resume - is a paper on the American Revolution.


Information from: News & Record, http://www.news-record.com

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