June 2, 2003 --
AS a top columnist for a major newspaper, I naturally get invited to a lot of elementary school pageants and talent shows. I go to many of them, but only for the free chocolate milk.
But when a fourth-grader named Max Molishever called to tell me that his schoolmates at PS 372 in Brooklyn had written an original opera, I knew I had to be there.
It's not that I'm a big opera fan - frankly, I couldn't tell an aria from an enema - but when 9- and 10-year-olds write their own opera, that's a story.
But given opera's high-minded themes and frequent use of languages that I don't speak, I felt I needed backup, so I invited Metropolitan Opera singer Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs and conductor Michael Recchiuti to join me at a final rehearsal of "The Stolen Secret" last week.
It turns out, the kids know their opera.
Writers Emilio Costales, Antonia Oliver, Ben Freedman, Tess Salvatore and Joy Westerman have crafted a timeless tale of betrayal, revenge and bribery (in this case, it's candy).
The story centers around Maria, a new student who quickly upstages the braggart Jeremy, who vows to discover the secret behind the mysterious newcomer's thick accent and thin wardrobe.
Bribing one of Maria's friends with the candy, he discovers that she's an illegal immigrant.
But just as he's about to reveal the "stolen" secret and regain his position at the top of the school's social food chain, his own secret comes to light. Or, more accurately, comes to dark - of which Jeremy is terrified.
Antonia said the plot was semi-autobiographical. "Secrets are a big thing in life," she said, worldly at 9.
"Once, I told my friend that I liked a certain person, but she told that person. I was so mad I wanted to punch her out." (Now that's an opera I want to see!)
Puccini-loving pedants will quibble that "The Stolen Secret" isn't a genuine opera. There's no violence or sexual tension.
And even though there's a fat lady and she does sing, this opera has a happy ending.
But Recchiuti saw the influence of Kurt Weill and Bertholdt Brecht.
And Jeremy's character, a "classic stuck-up baritone," is straight out of "The Toreador Song" from "Carmen," said Blancke-Biggs. "Too bad this kid's voice hasn't changed yet."
Indeed, this opera hits all the high notes. It's the low notes these kids have trouble with.
See a performance of "The Stolen Secret" Wednesday, at 7 p.m. at PS 372 (512 Carroll St., Brooklyn;  624-5271).