Tuesday, April 23, 1996
An operatic bravo for teachers, kids

The Cincinnati Enquirer

If you ever see me in my very best clothes being dragged along by two burly men, my hands bound with piano wire and a tortured expression on my face, I am on my way to the opera.

For years, I have been telling this to friends who have made vain but valiant attempts to civilize me. I have even had nerve enough to say this to Gus Stuhlreyer, the man most people think untangled Cincinnati Opera's knotty finances a few years ago.

Gus still works at the opera as its managing director and, amazingly, he still speaks to me.

Gus and the redoubtable Patty Beggs, his marketing director, have the notion that if people would just try opera, they'd like it. And ''You can't start too young''would be, I think, their point of view.

At least that's what they've been saying for as long as I can remember.

They will be shocked to learn that I have been won over by the eighth-graders at St. Francis Seraph School in Over-the-Rhine. Or maybe it was their teachers, Paulette Lotspeich and Beverly Toon. They're all pretty irresistible.

Paulette Lotspeich is the archetypical elementary school teacher with eyes in the back of her head. She gives orders, and the kids move. Right now. She also has the grace and the confidence to be funny: ''Wayne and Jesse leaving at the same time? Do I look stupid?'' ''Someone stole your poems. Now, there's a crime we could report.''

No nonsense: ''Quiet down. If you would like a make-work exercise, you know how good I am at that.''

And kind: ''Well, I suppose that one is out of uniform. I'm not good at that. I just don't notice what they're wearing. I look at Robert and see a poet. Kristin is a writer. Larry is a deep thinker. Gerald is an actor.''

And each one gets a chance to do what they do best -- in public this Saturday. The performance begins at 10:45 a.m. in Memorial Hall. I'm warning you, it's an opera. They have written, produced and are starring in We Won't Do It. I think you'll be relieved, as I was, that the title has nothing to do with sex or drugs.

It's about the creative process, sort of.

One of the writers, Damien, says his usual music of choice is rap or rhythm and blues. There is a hint of both. But there's also more than a hint of operatic intensity and pathos:

The teachers have no life, and so they torture us.

We'd better get to work before they start to fuss.

We must cooperate if we want to graduate.

Let's do a scene that's dramatic and gritty,

One that takes place in the inner city.

There follows the requisite agonizing death scene. And the chorus:

An opera, an opera.

We won't do it.

Considerably more entertaining than, ''The dog ate my homework.'' And it's set to music, painstakingly plotted out by the young composers on piano and bells. It's witty. And if you don't mind a philistine saying so, it's catchy. I was humming ''We Won't Do It'' all day after I saw a rehearsal at the school on Liberty at Vine.

But don't take my word for it. Their teachers think so, too. So does Joanie Leverone, the opera's manager of education and outreach, who worked with St. Francis. ''I think the kids have done a wonderful job,'' she says. ''Of course, the kids reflect their teachers.''

Well, of course.

The brisk but not brusque music teacher, Beverly Toon, like Mrs. Lotspeich, has spent untold hours of personal time on this project. She pushes rimless glasses more securely on her pretty, heart-shaped face, and says at the end of a run-through, ''It sounds good. You wrote a good piece.''

Damien, the 13-year-old librettist, looks over his shoulder to make sure I'm getting this. I think I am getting it.

Places like St. Francis Seraph could be the last, best hope for the arts. And a lot of other things as well.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.