New York — It's nearly performance time at New York City's Metropolitan Opera House. Up in the Grand Tier, Jason Fuller, neatly dressed in a gray sweater and tie, is intently reading a comic book. Several rows down, Rochelle Meade, in designer jeans and sneakers, secretly digs into a package of Fritos from her lunchbox. There is a good deal of animated chatter and confusion, as the last people find their seats, and the house lights dim. Then, when the stage curtain begins its majestic ascent, hundreds of shcoolchildren suddenly lean forward in eager anticipation.
Why is Lincoln Center's usually glamorous Metropolitan Opera House full of schoolchildren for the final dress rehearsal of Mozart's ''Don Giovanni''?
These students are part of the Metropolitan Opera Guild's School Membership Program, one of several currently offered by the guild's education department. This one focuses on bringing students from the New York City area into the opera house. For an initial school membership fee of $90, each school receives 44 passes to be used at its discretion for either final dress rehearsals, special student performances, or director's rehearsals. Prior to each performance the met provides filmstrips, access to recordings, a graded study guide and resource materials, the libretto, and activity suggestions.
''Before we came here today, we read the story, and then we watched a movie about it,'' explains Danielle, a freckle-faced 6th grader from P. S. 261 in Brooklyn.
Danielle's teacher, Joel Brooks, has been bringing his class to the Met for the past eight years. He feels that while most of his students enjoy the operas, ''you really have to educate them before you come, and even then a few of them will still be bored. After the performance we try to talk about what we saw, what we liked or disliked, and whether the performance was anything like our expectations. If the students are adequately prepared, though, most of them really enjoy the whole experience.''
During this performance (sung in Italian), the students seemed to follow the story without too much problem. As the curtain fell on the first act, one small boy in the next row leaped enthusiastically from his seat and yelled, ''bravo, bravo!'' ''The end was pretty neat,'' said Jason Hackett, an 8th grader from Grace Church School in Manhattan. ''I liked all those strobe lights, and it was amazing how quickly they changed the sets.''
Education director JoAnn Menashe Forman would be pleased to hear what these students have to say. ''Our aim is to make opera accessible to all,'' she says. ''Opera combines many art forms - acting, dance, music, painting, design, speech , and dialogue.''
Because she is a firm believer in learning by doing, Ms. Forman notes that the emphasis of the guild's education department is to make each program as active as possible. ''You never hear of 'math appreciation,' '' Ms. Forman points out. ''Math is based on certain practical applications which are learned in the classroom. Yet everyone knows about music appreciation. . . .'Sit down, kids, and let those beautiful sounds flow over you.' ''
In addition to the School Membership Program, the Met education department currently provides several more programs through which students can increase their enjoyment and understanding of opera.
For those students unable to attend operas at the Met, the education department offers its Metropolitan Opera Boxes. These are multimedia learning kits, degigned for middle- and upper-grade-level students. Each kit explores one well-known opera in depth, and includes a record, a teacher's guide with resource materials, student handouts, a filmstrip and cassette, and a poster.
Ms. Forman points out that the focus of each Opera Box is very individual. For example, the ''Carmen'' box is visually oriented. The filmstrip highlights the opera's story, while the poster presents three different set designers' conceptions of the same scene.
Another unique phase of the Met's education department is its Opera In-School Residency Program, in which two trained Met staffers work daily for eight weeks with about 45 fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders to create an original musical.
To do this, the students form their own production company, which then is totally responsible for creating and producing the musical. The students write the script; design the costumes, set, and makeup; build the sets; find the props; make the costumes, operate the lights.
Ms. Forman is quick to point out the interdisciplinary skills needed to accomplish this feat. For example, math must be incorporated in order to build sets and place lights, and grammar is used in writing the script. The Met staffers are on hand to select the production company and then to provide technical guidance.
Before the project begins, each student is asked to choose his or her area of interest. Next, schoolwide auditions are held for each available position For example, if a child is interested in building sets, he or she is asked questions such as ''What have you built before?'' and ''Why do you think you would be good for this job?'' Because Met staff members encourage the students to ''run the show,'' good team-work is essential. Students learn to be accountable for their part of the process.
The Met Backstage Tour is another favorite program. Running from the end of September through June, these popular tours take schoolchildren and adult groups through the Met's 10-floor backstage complex. As one exhausted parent remarked after a recent tour, ''When they said backstage, I thought we would go backstage. I didn't realize we would be going over, under, around, and through!''
During the hour-and-a-half tour, the groups visit the Met's wig department, makeup department, and costume shop, where 1,600 new costumes are produced each year. Another floor houses the scenic department and prop shop, which are responsible for building the two-story backdrops and sets. After a visit to the rehearsal rooms and a stop in the Met's cavernous basement storage area, the tour finishes on the opera stage itself, where visitors can investigate its trapdoors, revolving platform, and side stages.
For many students, the Backstage Tour is their first introduction to opera. After seeing firsthand how this art form is created, these students are often eager to attend a performance. It's all part of the community outreach and learning-by-doing philosophy that is helping develop the Met's newest audience. As 8th-grader Joseph Vassallo of P. S. 209 in Whitestone, N.Y., recently wrote: ''Our day at the opera was a wonderful experience. I have asked my parents to take me to another opera and they said they would. My parents have never gone to an opera, but I think they will enjoy it as much as I did.''