A light into darkness School for the Blind opera examines ignorance -- and ways to overcome it

December 09, 1998|By Amy Oakes and Daniel Valentine | Amy Oakes and Daniel Valentine,SUN STAFF

Throughout their lives, many students at Maryland School for the Blind have come face-to-face with dark shades of human nature: ridicule, pity or ignorance. Now, they're getting a chance show how they've overcome such emotionally provocative attitudes. In fact, they're going to sing about it.

Tonight, more than 45 students at the Northeast Baltimore school will perform an opera written for them, "Out of Darkness." Opening at 7: 30 p.m. in Knefley Gymnasium, 3501 Taylor Ave., the 90-minute musical drama will depict ways to overcome ignorance. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.

"It talks about the darkness in the world and how people treat others," said student Jessica Floyd of Hagerstown. "We want to show people that we're not just handicapped."

The 13-year-old, who has partial sight in her right eye, said when she attended public school, other students would tease her. Many of her cast mates, she said, have had similar experiences.

"We can do things besides get picked on and all," Floyd said.

On Monday, Floyd and the other performers ran through a full rehearsal in the gymnasium. Floyd sang her solo, "The Traveler," while the others stood behind her, swaying to the music or playing instruments.

The performers, ages 5 to 20, will be joined by 13 of the school's alumni and a chorus of students who will play switch-activated bell tone instruments.

In the summer, school officials asked Aniko Adelman Debreceny, associate music director at the Maryland branch of Levine School in Kensington, to create an opera for the students. Debreceny, a New Zealand native who lives in Frederick, had written four operas as well as educational music for seeing children.

After meeting with teachers, Debreceny said, she wrote the opera -- lyrics, music and stage directions -- in 2 1/2 months. She based the level of opera on videotapes of the students' other performances.

"Things like this grow and develop with the talent you have," she said.

The three-act opera is set in different historical periods and shows how various forms of human "darkness" are overcome, said Julie Ripley, a music teacher and therapist at the school.

The first act depicts the "darkness" of ignorance during the Middle Ages, Ripley said. Set in a slaughterhouse in Europe, the performers act out the fear that swept through the country as news of the bubonic plague spread.

The second act spotlights the life of Franklin D. Roosevelt and how he overcame his polio-induced disability, Ripley said. The third act portrays prejudice during the Holocaust. Set on a street in Germany, Jews line up in front of German soldiers and wait to be relocated.

The performers include the school's switch, prep and concert choirs. The opera will replace the annual Christmas music celebration.

Since the beginning of September, Ripley said, the students have practiced twice a week. They learned the opera by reading the lyrics in large print or Braille while listening to the music.

"They are pretty committed kids," she said. "Once they say they are going to do something, they do it."

Taking a break from rehearsal Monday, John Hayes, 17, of Hyattsville said he can't wait to take the stage in full costume. But, he did have a few preshow jitters. For his solo, "Wall Street," Hayes, who is partially blind, will don a black suit, white dress shirt, top hat and bow tie.

"It's going to be my first time in front of a big crowd and being videotaped," Hayes said. "I'm a little nervous."

Maryland School for the Blind is a nonprofit institution for those from infancy to age 21 who are blind or visually impaired or suffer multiple disabilities. The Taylor Avenue campus houses 200 students from around the state and Washington, D.C. The school serves an additional 200 nonresident students.

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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