Teens, director give voice to dreams
Opera features students in Hub schools
Sam Martinborough gathered his mainly teenage cast on the bare plywood set for the opening circle exercise that marks the start of each workday. The conversation starter on this bright afternoon: How did they feel to be facing their last rehearsal?
“Very sad, very happy,’’ said one of the performers. Said another: “I have my life back.’’
“Who needs a life?’’ shouted Martinborough, with his booming laugh.
He was only half joking. For months, the director, 45, has been working on “Treemonisha,’’ an opera by ragtime king Scott Joplin, and the most ambitious project undertaken by his nonprofit arts organization, Mssng Lnks, whose mission is to give city teens vocal instruction not available in schools.
Martinborough’s got a bare-bones budget, a company that’s largely untested, and a 1910 opera that’s rarely performed. But he could also have something special on his hands. The teens in his cast are some of the most talented singers in Boston’s underserved schools. And the Mssng Lnks production of “Treemonisha’’ will be the Boston premiere when it opens Friday night at Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall. The three shows, which run through Sunday, are free to the public, though donations are encouraged.
For the youths, it’s a chance to do serious vocal work. This is the first opera for Nedjie Thompson, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Mattapan. For the older actors playing the leads, “Treemonisha’’ has a different meaning. Anita Murrell, 25, the opera’s title character, works at a
“I’m hoping it’ll get me out as a singer,’’ she said during a rehearsal break last week. “To let people know I’m out here, and there’s talent out here.’’
Joplin, famous for “The Entertainer’’ and “Maple Leaf Rag,’’ never got “Treemonisha’’ produced. The opera tells the story of Treemonisha, an 18-year-old girl growing up on a plantation. The main source of conflict is her education and the fact that so many people around her make their living by selling charms.
The opera wasn’t performed anywhere until the 1970s, and the closest it’s come to Boston were two performances at Phillips Academy in Andover in 1991. Martinborough, who studied the opera in college, figured it would be perfect for Mssng Lnks. He used music from “Treemonisha’’ for a pair of programs in the Boston schools in 2010 and earlier this year.
Martinborough and Opera Boston, which has been working with Mssng Lnks, contacted schools in the fall to announce they were holding auditions for a production of “Treemonisha.’’
Ashley Rose, a 17-year-old of Charlestown who attends Boston Latin Academy, showed up. Since seventh grade, she’d tried out for roles at school, without luck. “I actually gave up completely,’’ she said. “It’s too much effort to be put down.’’
This time, Rose sang Mariah Carey’s “Hero,’’ and that night Martinborough e-mailed to tell her she could be part of the ensemble.
“I had to read it a bunch of times,’’ she said. “I kept thinking, ‘Is my name really on it?’ ’’
In all, the auditions took place over five days this winter at four Boston schools and Hibernian Hall. Thirty-two of the 36 students who auditioned were selected. Martinborough also brought on 18 singers who had been part of past Mssng Lnks and Opera Boston programs.
Rehearsals started in February, and with last week’s school vacation, stepped up to daily six-hour sessions.
“My prediction is that those of you who have been really excited up until now, today is the day your excitement starts wearing away and frustration sets in,’’ he said at the beginning of the week.
This was stressful territory for someone who had never directed a production outside a school setting. By last week, Martinborough was hardly eating and found himself getting to bed as late as 3 a.m. He worried not only about the work on stage, he worried about paying for the production.
Martinborough, physically slight at 5 feet 8 inches, is a commanding presence. And he has pet peeves: Put away your cellphones; no off-stage chatter; stay in character. But he is no joyless taskmaster. Martinborough has a gift for physical humor and an arsenal of exaggerated voices to lighten lackluster moments.
“I love Sam,’’ said Samantha Tan, a junior at North Quincy High School who, as a member of the Boston Children’s Chorus, performed in last year’s Opera Boston production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Madame White Snake.’’ “He approaches things very differently. If we’re up there and we don’t know how to portray a certain feeling, he’ll give us a real-life scenario to think about, and that way, we can emotionally attach to it.’’
Martinborough, who also has a master’s degree in theater education from Emerson College, took a part-time job teaching at Boston Arts Academy. He left that post in 2004 and founded Mssng Lnks, an organization with a $25,000-a-year budget and one employee: Martinborough. Funding comes largely by contracts with The Amigos School in Cambridge and Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester.
Ask Martinborough his budget for “Treemonisha,’’ and he responds with one of his 15-second laughs. His dream: $18,000. He has raised $3,800. He hopes in the end he’ll be able to pay for costumes, scenery, and the musicians. To save money on music rights, Martinborough is using a pair of pianists instead of an orchestra.
This is no Broadway set. The youths eat macaroni and cheese heated up in a microwave during a rehearsal break. Hibernian Hall has offered free rehearsal space. The hope is to collect enough in donations to pay Hibernian $1,500 for the run.
Martinborough believes that it’s important that the participants learn lessons that reach beyond the production. He spent the last week of rehearsals wrestling with what to do with four youths who had stopped showing. He cut them before final rehearsal Thursday.
“It is probably the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in this entire process,’’ said Martinborough, pausing between sentences as he struggled to keep his composure. “And for me. . .. Things like being on time, showing up, doing the best you can when you’re there are life lessons you have to learn.’’
Several hours later, after the final rehearsal, Martinborough opened up again in the circle. It was dark outside and the teens were tired and had started goofing off. They quieted down when he started talking.
“Some of you have worked harder than I expected. Some of you have not worked as hard as I would have liked. But you’ve all worked hard.’’
There were no more chuckles. No more checking messages. They were listening.
“From this time on, every time you talk in this space, it is a performance,’’ he said. “If you give me what you’ve been giving me, you will have a great show.’’
Geoff Edgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misidentified the school attended by singer Ashley Rose. It is Boston Latin Academy