By Deirdre Bannon
Current Staff Writer
When Juan Amaya was a young child, he started writing short stories to entertain himself. As an elementary school student, he taught himself how to play the saxophone and later the viola. Now, as a high school senior at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Amaya has brought his two passions together by writing and composing an original opera.
Called “Cinde’ella,” the opera brings a religious twist to the classic Cinderella story. It will premiere at Ellington this weekend — marking the first time the Burleith public arts school has produced an original opera created by a single student.
Amaya has spent nearly three years working on the piece, composing the music and writing the libretto. His teachers say it’s a remarkable accomplishment for any high school student, particularly one who had no formal training in music composition before arriving at Ellington.
“Juan was determined to learn how to compose, and he’s gone from zero to 100 during the past four years,” said Janet Peachey, a music theory and composition teacher at Ellington who has worked with Amaya on “Cinde’ella” since the beginning.
The opera is “full of brilliant melodies and really original, great ideas for how to set the text and illustrate the story musically,” she added. “There’s something vital and exciting about a piece created by someone so young, and ‘Cinde’ella’ has that quality.”
Amaya’s first exposure to opera was watching “Madame Butterfly” on YouTube as a freshman — and then he was hooked.
“I loved the feeling I got when I listened to the music — it really moved me — and I decided I wanted to create an opera,” Amaya said.
The works of George Frideric Handel and Giacomo Puccini, which Amaya describes as “luscious and religious,” further inspired him as a sophomore, and from there he sought to incorporate those same qualities into his own piece.
Mary Jane Ayers, chair of the vocal music department and a teacher at Ellington for 25 years, is directing the production of “Cinde’ella.” She created the school’s opera workshop class in 2000, a yearlong course that culminates in a staged opera production each May. In past years, students have performed classics like “Carmen Jones” and “Don Giovanni,” and a group of students once worked together to create an adaptation of “Porgy and Bess.”
Three years ago, Amaya approached Ayers when “Cinde’ella” was in its earliest stages to see if the school might one day produce it.
“When Juan first came to me, it was difficult to know if it would work because I didn’t know his skill level,” said Ayers. “But he just kept coming back, and soon it became clear that it was going to work.”
“The music is at a very high level,” Ayers added. “There are elements of Jamaican music because the fairy godmother character is Jamaican, but Juan also quotes Handel’s ‘Messiah’ very subtly and with wit. There’s dancing — Cinde’ella has a waltz — and like Puccini, there’s a lot of humor in it.”
There are 23 students in the cast, and 30 more are in the orchestra. The production runs about 75 minutes.
Amaya wrote the words for the opera first, and then “messed around on the piano to see what the words wanted,” he said. He also used a computer program to work out the music composition.
Amaya said he loved staying up late to refine the characters and make revisions to the piece. He will also be participating in the production as a member of the chorus, which made him appreciate how challenging it can be for singers to learn brand-new vocals.
“I learned how to adapt to people’s skills, and if a note was too hard, I would change it to make it easier,” Amaya said.
Both teachers who worked with Amaya said the senior stands out for his persistence and focus.
“What separates Juan is his determination to make things work,” said Ayers. “It’s an unusual quality in a teenager. He doesn’t give up until everything is in place — but he isn’t the least bit pushy about it, and that will carry him through life very successfully.”
Amaya is determined to make music his career. In the fall he will start as a freshman at Catholic University, majoring in music composition. He plans to work on orchestra and piano pieces as well as stage music, opera and ballet.
“Cinde’ella” will be performed as part of “A Night at the Opera: The Many Faces of Cinderella,” this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the school’s Ellington Theatre, 3500 R St. Tickets cost $10 and are available at ellingtonschool.org or at the door.
This article appears in The Georgetown Current newspaper.
By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer
Helping “historic music cultural institutions” survive, by offering public funds or a tax break? D.C. has done so with the Lincoln Theatre and the Howard. And now a bill introduced by Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans is aimed at easing the money woes of Blues Alley.
The bill was “provided” by Blues Alley, the owner of the venerable Georgetown jazz club said at a hearing last week, but takes a “broad-brush approach.” Owner Harry Schnipper was one of two witnesses to testify on the measure, which received a fairly neutral review from an aide to Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, the city’s budget watchdog.
The bill would, in essence, exempt “historic music cultural institutions” from real property taxes for 10 years, and from any transfer or deed recordation taxes, if they purchase or lease space with the “goal of expanding public live music and cultural entertainment and employment opportunities” in the District.
There are many caveats. To be eligible, for example, the beneficiary would have had to operate for at least 45 years here, hosting a minimum of 100 live performances a year. And the expansion must occur within a year before or within five years after the bill takes effect. At least 50 percent of the venue’s new hires must be District residents. And the total tax abatement — for all who qualify — would be no more than $2 million.
Schnipper of Blues Alley offered a compelling case for tax relief.
“America’s oldest continuing jazz supper club” opened in 1965 in a former horse barn off Wisconsin Avenue and prospered in its early years, he said. Then in the 1970s, with the rise of nonprofit competition — the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center and the Washington Performing Arts Society, all presenting jazz among other offerings — “suddenly we became an anomaly.”
Now, he said, most of his competitors get “preferential tax rates.” And with the rising cost of rent and property taxes in Georgetown, the survival of Blues Alley is under threat. “Does Blues Alley have the ability to compete? I don’t know,” Schnipper told Evans’ Committee on Finance and Revenue. He cited the closings of Childe Harold, the Cellar Door, the Bayou and other commercial music venues in D.C. “Once a jazz club goes away, it never comes back.”
Beyond its contributions to Georgetown’s economy and to local hotels where visiting artists stay, Schnipper said his firm also has a nonprofit arm, offering a summer camp, a year-round youth orchestra, and programs in public schools.
Schnipper did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his future plans. But according to the Washington Business Journal, he’s been offered a chance to buy the Blues Alley building, which sits in an alley of the same name off Wisconsin Avenue.
Schnipper, the Business Journal reported in April, has also considered taking space at CityCenter DC and other locations, and was an active bidder to run the city-owned Lincoln Theatre on U Street. The theater’s new operator has been selected but not announced.
He’s also said — and many patrons agree — that he would like to remain in Georgetown. Schnipper testified that when he approached his council member for help, “Evans said, ‘I can’t help you with the lease, but can help with taxes.’”
Evans, who lives in Georgetown, spoke only briefly at last week’s hearing, saying he would move the bill at the council’s next session. “It’s not specifically written for Blues Alley, but could be helpful to keep Blues Alley in Georgetown. Blues Alley is known worldwide,” he said. “Because [the area] is becoming so prosperous, let’s not drive out what makes us who we are.”
Betsy Keeler, the chief financial officer’s deputy director for economic development financing, said she couldn’t determine whether tax relief is needed “because no historic music institution is specifically identified in the bill.” The office also hasn’t determined how much the bill would cost the city. “But,” Keeler said, “because the legislation caps it at $2 million, that would be the maximum fiscal impact.”
Ed Lazere of the liberal-leaning DC Fiscal Policy Institute noted in an interview that the District has given tax breaks to other private firms, most recently high-tech firms like Living Social, without directly naming them in legislation that grants the abatements.
But, he said, “we think it’s deceptive to provide targeted tax breaks for individual businesses” without naming them. “If the tax break is intended for Blues Alley, and everyone understands that, then it should say that. If they’re really struggling, we can evaluate that. But that would be more honest,” Lazere said.
This article appears in the May 15 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.
By Deirdre Bannon
Current Staff Writer
Despite urgent calls from parents at several District schools to reverse funding cuts for the Fillmore Arts Center, the D.C. Public Schools system is arguing that the arts education program doesn’t serve enough schools to justify a higher allocation.
According to Friends of Fillmore, a volunteer group that supports the arts center, Fillmore is projected to serve about 3,000 students next year, about the same number that attended during the 2011-2012 school year — yet Fillmore’s budget is down by at least $250,000.
D.C. Public Schools says that budget cut is due to the drop in the number of participating schools, from 11 to eight, but Fillmore supporters argue that the budget should be based on the number of students.
Fillmore offers a music, visual arts, drama and dance curriculum to pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade students from eight schools, including five in Northwest, at its two co-locations — Hardy Middle School in Georgetown and Raymond Education Campus in Petworth. The program was founded under the principle that arts education in a central location could provide a stronger curriculum and more resources than neighborhood schools could offer on their own.
The program has had its budget reduced by more than 40 percent over the past four years, to just over $1 million as proposed for the 2014 fiscal year, according the Friends of Fillmore and other stakeholders. Fillmore supporters fear the current per-pupil funding cuts are so significant that the nearly 40-year-old program may no longer be viable.
PTA presidents from Key, Hyde-Addison, Marie Reed, Ross and Stoddert elementary schools — the five Northwest schools served by Fillmore — sent a letter last month to D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson urging her to restore the art center’s budget. There’s also an online petition asking the same, which now has more than 1,000 signatures.
On Friday, Henderson responded that budget cuts are a result of fewer schools and students participating in Fillmore’s program next year — and she noted that Fillmore principal Katherine Latterner has had the chance to recruit new schools.
But stakeholders like Key Elementary School PTA president Sunny Kaplan say the chancellor “is off the mark.”
“The cuts we are protesting are not related to the fact that four schools are not continuing with Fillmore. … We are talking about per-pupil funding, which is down 40 percent over four years,” Kaplan wrote to Henderson on Tuesday.
Further, Kaplan argues that there was no opportunity for Fillmore principal Latterner to recruit additional schools because “DCPS put specific instructions in the budget book that forbade new schools from signing up for Fillmore. Only later, after the budget process was finished and all the schools had finalized their staffing and plans, did DCPS allow more schools to sign up for Fillmore. These schools had already hired teachers, gotten their budgets approved by their [local school advisory teams],” she wrote to Henderson.
“DCPS appears to be building a case that schools are fleeing Fillmore, and we’re unable to recruit new ones. This, again, is a fiction perpetuated by DCPS,” said Kelly Richmond, Friends of Fillmore board president.
D.C. Public Schools spokesperson Melissa Salmanowitz said yesterday she wasn’t immediately familiar with Kaplan’s letter and couldn’t respond to questions before The Current’s deadline.
In Henderson’s testimony before the D.C. Council Committee on Education’s budget oversight hearing Thursday, the chancellor said repeatedly that public school budgets are based on enrollment figures and that “the money follows the children.”
But Fillmore stakeholders say the school system isn’t actually applying that standard to the arts program, which is instead allotted funding based on the number of participating schools, rather than the enrollment figures. Stakeholders say that’s at the crux of the problem and that Henderson and D.C. Public schools officials won’t address it.
“DCPS has never substantively engaged with what Friends of Fillmore or the Fillmore Arts Center’s constituency has to say about the budget,” said Tilman Wuerschmidt, the Key Elementary PTA representative to Friends of Fillmore. “They will only say that the number of participating schools is why they reduced funding, and any other rationale, like looking at per-pupil funding, is completely irrelevant to them. It’s incredibly frustrating.”
Fillmore historically relied on per-pupil funding, but in recent years participating schools instead have been asked to contribute the amount they’re allocated for arts and music teachers — anywhere from the value of one to three faculty member salaries, depending on the size of the school. The school system recently reduced that allocation by half a salaried position per school to fund a world languages program.
Mary Levy, a longtime expert on D.C. Public Schools budgeting, conducted an independent analysis of the projected cuts to Fillmore. She found that D.C. Public Schools has reduced the number of arts and music positions at five of the eight schools slated to attend classes at Fillmore next year — and because those schools turn over that funding to pay for Fillmore, the art center’s budget is down about $250,000.
At-large Council member David Catania, who chairs the Education Committee, was critical at Thursday’s hearing of the cuts several schools were slated to absorb in the school system’s budget proposal — which ranged from 5 to 17 percent. He proposed capping any one school’s budget cuts at 5 percent, so there would be a “softening of that consequence when we have dramatic reductions,” and so cuts aren’t “so dramatic that it has the effect of destabilizing the school and disrupting the program for those children who remain.”
Catania said he would look to establish a stabilization fund for schools so impacted, but it’s unclear whether Fillmore would be included in that plan.
This article appears in the May 8 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.