'WETLANDS' WISDOM : Opera Uses Issue of Progress vs. Mother Nature to Teach Creative Problem-Solving

Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for the Times Orange County Edition.

Man threatens beast. Beast outsmarts man. Man (a) sees error of his ways and repents, or (b) ends up looking like a total jerk.

From Aesop to Bugs Bunny, that premise has worked for centuries, and now Opera Pacific has put its own spin on it with "Crisis in the Wetlands," a children's opera that pits decent but shortsighted humans against a trio of ingenious critters in a high-stakes conflict between progress and Mother Nature. But this time the ending isn't so pat.

This adaptation of a Brazilian musical by Marilia Carvalho de Almeida presents an often volatile issue in simplified terms as a way to teach children creative problem-solving skills.

"One of the things we try to show is that there are reasonable solutions to complex problems," said Kevin Crysler, Opera Pacific's community programs director. "There are two valid points to any issue, and we need to work together to find a common solution."

"Wetlands," which debuted in 1992, is one of three Opera Pacific children's works currently touring Southland elementary schools. The other two focus on anti-smoking and self-esteem. The group also presents an interactive program for developmentally disabled students, an abridged English version of "Don Pasquale" for high school students and next year will mount a bilingual opera on the Latino experience in Orange County based on a story by a local teen-ager.

On Sunday, "Wetlands" will have a rare public performance at 1:30 p.m. during Earth Day festivities held, appropriately enough, at Upper Newport Bay, one of the three major remaining wetlands areas in Orange County. Earth Day festivities run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and include children's art activities, naturalist-led tours, touch tanks, environmentally themed exhibits and entertainment. Admission is free.

The Sea & Sage chapter of the National Audubon Society, one of the conservation groups that will be represented at Earth Day, recently formed an alliance with Opera Pacific that has breathed new life into "Wetlands," Crysler said. Beginning next fall, groups booking the show will have the option of adding a post-performance "wetlands lab" led by Sea & Sage volunteers. Hands-on activities will include a study of animal adaptations with live and stuffed creatures, an examination of pond life and a look at wetlands' role in the ecosystem, said one of the programs creators, Trude Hurd, project director of the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine.

Students who complete the project will receive a bookmark that lists the locations of the three local wetlands (the other two being San Joaquin Marsh and the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach), Hurd said. Opera Pacific also provides a study guide compiled by the Acorn Group, a creator of science curriculum.

"The message to the kids is 'Now you've seen the opera, done the stuff in school, but the most important part is to see (the wetlands environment) up close: live, muddy and wet,' " she said.

"Wetlands" was adapted for Opera Pacific's community-outreach group, the Overture Company, from De Almeida's 1984 environmental opera, "Confusao no Brejo" ("Tumult in the Marsh"). The 1984 work was designed to teach, as the author puts it, "how important it is to understand other people's hopes, to preserve their right to live, and to respect their way of living."

The central characters in "Wetlands" are Owl, Heron and Grumpfy Frog, residents of a marsh designated as the site for a new road. When the project's engineer and her assistant arrive, the creatures devise a plan to persuade the humans not to destroy their habitat.

With the help of the audience, the animals sing "The Song of the Marsh" to the humans, who have been conveniently captured (don't ask us how) by Grumpfy. The enlightened humans strike a compromise and join the animals in celebration with grand operatic flourish.

Wetlands preservation has caused heated debate among local developers, government agencies and conservationists, but despite the subject matter, Crysler claims his company's show has no political overtones. In fact, he added, a large chunk of Opera Pacific's funding comes from the local developers, and to date he has heard nothing negative from them about the project.

"The environment is an important issue in Southern California . . . where 95% of the indigenous wetlands are gone, and the ones that are left are located in prime real estate areas," Crysler said.

"This is a way of showing people that wetlands are valuable, that paving them over is a bad environmental decision. Children need to understand the bigger picture. It's just a matter of education; it's nothing to get angry about."

* What: "Crisis in the Wetlands" at Upper Newport Bay's Earth Day.

* When: Sunday, April 17. Festivities run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; opera performance is at 1:30 p.m.

* Where: Shellmaker Island, Upper Newport Bay, 600 Shellmaker, Newport Beach.

* Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, exit at Jamboree Road and drive south. Turn right on Backbay Drive. Follow Backbay Drive past Newport Dunes to parking areas.

* Wherewithal: Free. (Parking is free next to Shellmaker Island, but there will be a small charge for any overflow parking at Newport Dunes.)

* Where to call: For information on Opera Pacific, call (714) 546-7372. For Earth Day, call (714) 640-6746.

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