NEWARK, NJ - An education grant has provided Newark schoolchildren an opportunity to learn about and participate in one of the most classic theatric musical forms - opera. 

"I like that you can express your feelings with actions and feelings. I found some good ways to express my talents," said Imanol, a fifth grader at Rafael Hernandez Elementary School in Newark's North Ward, who benefited from a non-profit grant that gives local schoolchildren a chance to give a wide range of art forms a chance. "I felt excited because I was onstage." 

From the outside, opera, which originated in Italy in the 16th century, may not be the first type of music that would interest kids in 21st century Newark. But the ArtStart grant program, sponsored by Newark Arts, is designed to spur student exposure to cultural activity that is either not available, sporadic, or available only in limited supply within the local arts community.

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Since its inception is 2001, Newark Arts has made more than 150 grant awards though the ArtStart program ranging from $500 to $3,000 and totaling more than $400,000.  

Katherine Brodhead, a music teacher and the arts department chair at Rafael Hernandez, noted how the Metropolitan Opera Guild, an organization within the famed New York City-based Metropolitan Opera company which helps expand opera's reach to a wider audience, works with Newark Arts to help students see and hear for themselves the artistic value of opera. 

"As part of the program, my fifth-grade students created an opera and then presented it at our school," said Brodhead. "We also got to go see a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, which is very cool."

The opera, which has a theme about emotions, was written by a mix of general education, special education, and bilingual students, shares their experiences about how they respond to emotions.

"A lot of students know what it's like to come to a school where they don't speak the primary language," said Brodhead about a school population that includes many students from Spanish-speaking countries such as the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Peru, as well as many students who recently came to Newark from Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

"They share what it's like to come to this country, and to this school, through opera," Brodhead said. "Kids in general can be turned off to different kinds of music and genres like opera. But when they are exposed to a different type of music and see them get genuinely interested, it can be very powerful."

Wendy, a fifth-grader, spoke about how it takes confidence and trust to talk about their innermost thoughts and emotions through their opera.

"We got to express our feelings," Wendy said. "Especially when they said words like sadness, loneliness, and alienated."

Zahad, another fifth-grader, noted how being in the opera helps overcome the fear of speaking or performing in public.

"It felt good," Zahad said. "Everybody wanted to hear my lines."

An important goal of the ArtStart program is to encourage students to work together during the creative process. Jayson, a fifth grader, talked about how by working together, his classmates were able to bond by artistically expressing themselves as a team. 

"I was really nervous when I was on the stage, but it felt awesome and cool. My friends were shocked that I could sing!" said Jayson. "Writing the opera was kind of hard because everyone made mistakes. But we practiced, and we got it."