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Children’s opera brings message about bully goats

JAY SOWERS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Ivan Conrad, left to right, Diana Thompson, Rachel Arky and Joe Ryan sing together during a performance of “The Billy Goats Gruff!” at Braden Auditorium on Tuesday morning.
JAY SOWERS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Ivan Conrad, left to right, Diana Thompson, Rachel Arky and Joe Ryan sing together during a performance of “The Billy Goats Gruff!” at Braden Auditorium on Tuesday morning.

No matter how rough and tough the three Billy Goats Gruff were, the answer to their bullying problem didn’t involve their strength.

The solution to dealing with a big bully who wouldn’t let them go home their usual way was to share their problems with grownups and learn to be fair and kind to each and everyone — no matter who.

West Elementary School second grader Kaitlyn Richardson had been told that several times before, but hearing and seeing that lesson performed Tuesday morning in the children’s opera, “The Billy Goats Gruff!” made it hit home.

Eight-year-old Branden Paige, above, laughs with his classmates during a performance of “The Billy Goats Gruff!” at Braden Auditorium Tuesday morning.
Eight-year-old Branden Paige, above, laughs with his classmates during a performance of “The Billy Goats Gruff!” at Braden Auditorium Tuesday morning.

“I learned that when bullies are bullying you, it’s best to call an adult to help you,” Richardson said. “I liked how they taught the bully a lesson, but then became friends with him to help him.”

The opera performance is part of the educational outreach program sponsored by the Natchez Festival of Music, which arranges 20 performances for more than 7,000 students in southwest Mississippi and Concordia Parish.

“These artists go into the schools and present a children’s opera for students, so they can learn what an opera is and learn more about music in general,” said Bobby Wynn, chairman of the program. “You can’t have opera lovers without showing them operas.”

Each year, the outreach program puts on a different opera and incorporates themes and lessons relevant to students, Wynn said.

“Bullying is a big issue in all schools right now, so we wanted to teach them about that through the music of the opera,” Wynn said. “And some of these schools don’t have music teachers or programs, so this could be the first time they’re hearing an opera or music like this.”

The opera, written by John Davies for the Kansas City Opera, incorporates strategies for dealing with bullying into the classic Norwegian fairy tale.

In the opera, an after-school game of hide and seek is ruined for the three billy goat friends when a bully blocks the bridge that takes them home.

Two of the billy goats, Ernesto and Dandini, remember what their moms, dads and teachers told them about bullying and go home the longer way to get help from grownups.

Ivan Conrad, left, assumes the role of a bully goat during a the performance.
Ivan Conrad assumes the role of a bully goat during a the performance.

The third billy goat, Lucy, crosses the bridge and confronts the bully, Osmin, who has stolen her doll.

After the two get into operatic arguments and staged pushing and shoving, Lucy pushes Osmin into the creek below.

Osmin’s fall into the creek resulted in an eruption of laughter from the hundreds of students from Natchez public schools Tuesday.

“I like it when the one goat pushed the bully down into the water,” West second grader Jessie Grayson said. “I think it taught him a lesson.”

When Osmin begins to cry from the fall into the creek, Lucy asks if he’s OK, and the two begin to settle their differences.

“Please understand that I’m a bully, and bullies don’t cry,” Osmin, played by Ivan Conrad, sang during the opera. “Please understand I was a bully, and I did not think about the way you feel inside.”

When Ernesto and Dandini return to help Lucy, they find her with her doll in hand and the ex-bully as their new friend.

“Although he’s a bully, I think he wants to be our friend,” Lucy, played by Diana Thompson, sang during the opera. “We will be fair and kind and true to each and every one — no matter who.”

After the opera, the musicians sat on stage and answered questions from the students in the crowd. The musicians all auditioned in New York with the festival’s artistic director, Jay Dean, for a chance to come to Natchez for the annual Festival of Music.

Students asked questions at the end, inquiring about how long musicians had attended school and how they performed so well.

One comment about how bullies are mean to other people allowed Thompson to reinforce the meaning behind the opera.

 Rachel Arky, left to right, Joe Ryan and Diana Thompson sing together during the performance.
Rachel Arky, left to right, Joe Ryan and Diana Thompson sing together during the performance.

“Bullies are just scared, and they don’t know how to express it,” she said. “We all get bullied, and it really never goes away, so you just have to learn how to tell someone who can help you.”

The group will continue performing the opera through Friday at the auditorium in the Braden administrative building at 10 Homochitto St. The public is invited to attend any of the performances at 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.