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.