From the Wheaton Gazette

An opera with something to say

Local troupe performs for disabled students at Stephen Knolls

by Frank Curreri , Staff Writer Photo from gazzette of Perfection, photo Van Ly

December 3, 1997

Some people may question whether an audience composed of children and adolescents with mental retardation or autism is capable of appreciating an opera, but Lesley Choy is not among them.

Determined to express her gratitude for the joy these youth have given to her over the years, Choy recently brought the Unidentified Flying Opera Company to the Stephen Knolls School in Wheaton.

"I believe everyone can learn," said Choy, director of "Perfection: A Space Opera in One Act," which was performed by the company at Stephen Knolls Nov. 26. "There's an old saying: 'Just because one cannot speak, does not mean one does not have something to say. I view these kids as the angels of the Earth ... It is incumbent upon us to do everything we can to serve them because they enrich our lives so much."

Elizabeth "Kitty" Reed, Stephen Knolls' teacher-in-charge, said that in addition to mental retardation, many of the school's students are confined to wheelchairs or walking-assistance devices.

Choy, a Silver Spring resident and substitute special education aide for Montgomery County Public Schools, sometimes works at Stephen Knolls and enthusiastically greeted many students by name as they gathered before the start of the opera. The performance was primarily funded by an Outreach Grant from the Arts Council of Montgomery County, Choy said.

The 45-minute opera offered a story-line that mirrors a real-life problem facing many of its audience members -- a limited capacity to communicate -- and is designed to encourage them.

The opera's protagonist was born with many health problems, and is therefore unable to speak. Nevertheless, the boy's parents blanket him with love and name him "Perfection."

The setting for the opera is on the planet Yo-yo, and in this make-believe world, Perfection is old enough for school within 10 days.

When he arrives -- frightened and nervous for his first day at school -- all of his new classmates beg to have him sit next to them. His new teacher, Ms. Oldspecs, is both patient and compassionate, and the warm reception Perfection receives at school makes a difficult transition easy.

Gazzette photo of "Pet"A fellow classmate gives Perfection a rubber-band ball, and he can speak well and be understood so long as he is holding it. But then a villain -- Dangerous Lil -- comes onto the scene, stealing Perfection's rubber-band ball, hindering his communication skills and abducting him onto her spaceship.

In the end, Perfection recovers the magical ball and discovers that Dangerous Lil is really his long-lost aunt.

The UFO Company performed the same opera for Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School Nov. 24, and a busload of students from Lee assisted the professional group at Stephen Knolls.

But the highlight for Choy came from the opera's background art, which was produced by the combined efforts of all 72 students at Stephen Knolls, under the guidance of art teacher Mary Schwartz.

The art included amazingly detailed pictures of a large rainbow and a blue skyline with white clouds hanging over a wide-open green landscape filled with trees and a winding, white picket fence.

The images made Choy emotional.

"As proud as I am of our professional crew, I'm even prouder of the Stephen Knolls students," Choy said. "I cried when I first saw it.

"This backdrop and this art are just as much the stars as [our performers]."