Class acts

6:01 AM: A Working Class Opera is a hip hopera—a hip hop opera—by, for and about Reno’s working class artists

Chelsie Rose practices her song before rehearsal of <i>6:01 AM: A Working Class Opera.</i>

Chelsie Rose practices her song before rehearsal of 6:01 AM: A Working Class Opera.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

It’s 7:15 p.m. on a Monday night, and the cast members of 6:01 AM: A Working Class Opera gather around in the brightly colored rooms of Rainshadow Charter High School.

They are warming up for a full run- through. Scales, rhymes, and the laughter and chatter of the cast reverberates through the room as composer Fred Crase strokes his beard and prepares his sheet music. The director, Pan Pantoja, a drama instructor at Rainshadow School, is a tall, husky man with a goatee and dark blue eyes. He demands the attention of the cast with a booming voice. He is listing off the dress rehearsal times.

“Twelve days, guys,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

6:01 AM is the creation of Pantoja, local poet and musician Richie “Apprentice” Panelli and composer Crase.

“Richie and I had wanted to do a hip hopera for a long time to raise money for Rainshadow,” says Pantoja. “Richie had music, so we got together to see what we could do. And it’s just gotten huge.”

6:01 AM is indeed huge. Reno organizations representing youth, opera, spoken word, hip-hop, dance, film and orchestration are collaborating in support of Rainshadow’s drama department and performance arts programs for local teens. Spoken Views, Holland Project, Sierra Arts and Reno’s hip-hop and spoken word communities are all involved.

What’s opera, doc?

The opera begins with a prelude full of beats, violins and intensity. The setting for the opera is the low-income Brownville apartments in downtown Reno, where the narrator, Rich, is one of the caretakers of the property.

“This opera is about and for the working class people of Reno,” says Pantoja.

Tony Walker in position for the opening scene.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

The play catalogs a variety of characters living in Brownville apartments, from a Vietnam veteran to a graffiti artist, a poor college student to a single mother.

“This truly original performance piece is a theatrical personification of hope, determination and endurance in the face of adversity,” says Pantoja. “The characters struggle with everyday concerns, such as paying the rent, keeping food on the table, raising children, and aspiring to rise up and confront their economic condition.”

Pantoja handpicked the cast, mostly from the Spoken Views poetry group and former Rainshadow students.

“I found the most talented people in Reno,” he says.

The racially diverse cast ranges in ages from 16 to 30. The cast includes a tall African-American with an afro, a blonde bombshell, and a tattooed Latino. Some are poets, some are singers, and some are actors.

The youngest cast member and a student at Rainshadow, 16-year-old Emily Orellana says the opera has been a lot of work but worthwhile. She smiles as she sets down her backpack. She has a long black faux-hawk and is wearing a Rainshadow T-shirt and torn Capri shorts.

“The opera is really inspiring,” she says. “I hope people get a powerful message from it.”

The music is a mix of hip-hop beats, violin riffs, and synthesized keyboards. Characters in the opera go from singing to rapping to chanting to acting, in an engaging mixture of hip-hop and opera.

Cast member Emily Orellana.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

The Reno Philharmonic and a choir of Nevada Opera singers will accompany the cast of 6:01 AM during a one-night-only performance on May 30 at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts.

Cast a (rain) shadow

“This production means everything to me,” said 19-year-old cast member Cole Campbell. “It’s starting my future and feeding a starving artist.”

“This is one of those opportunities you can’t pass up,” said 27-year-old Spoken Views poet Iain Watson. “I am a person who lives my life by setting goals and achieving them. This is one of those goals.”

Cast member Marvin Gonzalez said he feels like his character isn’t much of a stretch from his real life.

“I’ve been a bum before, I know what it’s like to live on the streets,” says Gonzalez. “The whole opera just feels organic to me.”

Cast member Tony Walker says he thinks this project is bringing some unity to the Reno arts community.

“This opera is showing Reno artists that they can create a scene they want to be a part of,” says Walker. “It’s an important collaboration that can showcase some of the talent we have in Reno.”

“Its demanding but necessary,” says Chelsie Rose, another cast member. “It represents everything I believe in as a poet and an artist.”

“It’s been great to see it all come together,” says composer Crase. “I used to be a janitor; I’ve worked those kind of jobs. This opera is for those people.”

“We all have been working so hard on this since February,” said Pantoja. “I can’t wait to see it come alive onstage. … I hope it will cause a conversation Americans needs to have. A line in the opera says, ‘The rich get richer and the poor get dead.’ We don’t need that in this country. This is for the working class.”