Above, from left, vocalists Shushanna Keymetlyan, Laiyah Serpas, May Nguyen and Isaiah Yiga prepare for their performance of ‘In America,’ an oratorio that depicts the struggles of Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II.

Van Nuys Choir Director Brianne Arevalo and her students rehearse ‘In America,’ an oratorio they composed themselves.

While a lot of high school students take courses in vocal music, it’s not often that the kids get the opportunity to perform music and lyrics that they composed themselves.

Students from Van Nuys Senior High Performing Arts Magnet this week performed an oratorio – a musical work for orchestra and voices – with music and lyrics they wrote themselves, with support by professionals from the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Their performance of ‘In America’ was a personal and heartfelt tribute to the Japanese Americans interned in camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

“This was such an incredible experience all the way through,” said Brianne Arevalo, the school’s choir director. “Every week, professionals from the Chorale came in with new creative activities and new opportunities for learning.

“It was so exciting as an educator to partner with them to develop a whole different kind of learning experience, different lesson plans, and all new ways of drawing creativity from these students.”

About 90 students have been working since September with a composer, lyricist and vocalist from the Master Chorale, part of a residency program the organization developed with L.A. high schools. Students chose the topic for their oratorio, and identified the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II as a significant period in history they could relate to today.

“Students were able to connect really well with the story of the Japanese internment camps,” Arevalo said. “The experiences of immigrants and children of immigrants are relevant to this community. Even students who are not immigrants themselves know others who are. They’re able to identify with the struggles of being a foreigner working hard to be accepted by others.”

Students worked throughout the fall semester in groups to compose the music and write the libretto. They also visited the Japanese American Heritage Museum in downtown Los Angeles, where they viewed artifacts from the camps and spoke with docent Mas Yamashita, who was interned with his family when he was 6 years old.

Click the image to view a featurette on the making of the oratorio “In America,” written and composed by Van Nuys students.

“It helps students relate more to history when they are able to interact with someone who experienced it,” Yamashita said. “They were able to hear what it was like for someone who was punished for having the face of the enemy … for being different. Nowadays, there is a lot of talk about punishing people because of their religion or because they are immigrants, so they understand.”

Yamashita attended the students’ performance and could be seen tearing up during sections.

“The music was so powerful,” he said. “And the pictures that were shown with the music really depicted the hardships we experienced – not just while in the camps but during the years following, when life became increasingly difficult.”

Sophomore Fatima Massu said that the museum visit brought their understanding of the subject matter to a whole new level.

“What we were learning was already interesting, but it was after we visited the museum that we really started to experience the emotion that surrounded these events,” she said. “I think that really came out in our work.”

“Before this project, we kind of just saw the Japanese as the enemy during World War II,” she said. “But, now it’s different. Through music, it’s like we’ve been able to feel what they felt. We can understand that they are humans with emotions and struggles that are just like what so many people in the world are living today.”

Classmate Ilexi Lula said she transferred to Van Nuys High from another school at the beginning of the spring semester just so she could join the choir.

“I was just blown away by what the students were able to create,” she said. “The music is so powerful. There is so much emotion in it. I am just honored to have the chance to be a part of performing it.”

Sophomores Fatima Massu, left, and Ilexi Lula say the collaborative nature of the school choir strengthens student bonds on and off stage.

Lesili Beard, director of education for the L.A. Master Chorale, said Van Nuys was selected to be a part of the Oratorio Project because of the degree of commitment they showed.

“The school was already exhibiting a strong arts program,” she said. “They showed they are ready to take it to the next level. What these educators have been able to do in partnership with our professionals is extraordinary.”

Now in its seventh year, the Oratorio Project evolved from a 15-year-old program called “Voices Within,” in which the Master Chorale partnered with elementary schools to develop the vocal talents of fifth-graders.

“We wanted to develop a model that was suited to the education of the more mature high school students,” Beard said. “We’re pleased we’ve managed to leverage the program to integrate the arts with other core content – in this case, history and social studies. Through music, the content is truly brought to life.”

The Master Chorale’s Alice Murray, a teaching artist who has been working with Van Nuys High students, explained the suitability of the oratorio format.

“An oratorio is a concert piece that tells a large, complex story with melodies, choruses, solos and instrumental music,” she said. “We’re showing students that they can use something they already possess – a voice – to tell stories in ways that other forms of communication cannot. We’re helping them understand that vocal music is a powerful means of communicating what they are learning.”