On March 8, Cobb School Founder and Head of School Mary Lou Cobb applauded the many people who made her last “opera week” such an enormous success. In June, after 45 years of service, Mary Lou Cobb will step down from her post as head of school. Before the curtain rose that night at Ethel Walker’s Ferguson Theater, she spoke to the audience of Cobb School parents, grandparents, alumni and friends about the special community that brought this sweet yet powerful tale to life in just four days. With sickness and snow behind them, the Cobb community came together to breathe life into a memorable story of acceptance and inclusion.
Mary Lou Cobb has been running The Cobb School, Montessori in Simsbury since 1974, before most of the school’s current parents were born. Nineteen years ago she instituted the school’s annual children’s opera. Composer and director Sanford Jones was the guest director in those early days. In 2009, William and Hollis Bokhout took up the mantle, and for the past decade this dynamic duo, with Bill as composer and his wife Hollis as choreographer, travel from Grand Rapids to Simsbury to pull together a remarkable performance year after year.
This year the Bokhouts premiered their fifth opera at Cobb. After five times, it’s safe to say the Bokhouts want Cobb’s children to carry out their inaugural performance. A professional baritone, Bill composes children’s operas, which he and Hollis then direct all over the country, but Cobb is where their creations first come to life.
Cobb performed The Weed in the Garden, a story of a lonely weed trying to find his place among the beautiful flowers. Jamison Burnett, a sixth grader from Granby, played the persistent weed. Determined to find his place in the garden, the Weed disguised itself several times, returning to the inviting garden only to be excised by a rigid, albeit upbeat, gardener played by 6th grader Alex Cork of Canton.
Owen Reed, also a 6th grader from Canton, helped narrate the tale as he played the Rabbit who collected information from the Gossiping Vines, led by 6th grader Lucy Oneglia of Avon. The Gossiping Vines and the Gardener not only excluded the smelly Weed, they forced out the Flower Child, Mikaela Gallo, a 5th grader from Avon, who loves the garden and the comfort and solace it gives her. In the end, it’s the forgiving Flower Child and the medicinal Weed that save the Gardener. Back from the brink of death after being infected by a rose thorn, the Gardener comes to value the Weed and the young woman who saved him despite his cruelty to her. The excluded become the included, and the community is complete.
Before the performance, Hollis laughed backstage, “We’re in denial that this is Mary Lou’s last opera.” Then, with seriousness, said, “Mary Lou has had a very powerful influence on our teaching over the years.” Bill added, “The garden theme is analogous to Cobb’s classrooms. It’s what we think of when we think of The Cobb School and Mary Lou. A place that is nurturing.” Bill continued, “Mary Lou has a knack for bringing people together, and this opera’s theme of kindness and acceptance reflects her. It is a theme that is important to all of us.”
Chris Lyles, the school’s art teacher and professional children’s book illustrator, designed the set. Bill stood in awe of Chris’s design: “It’s like Chris got inside my head and knew exactly what I imagined.” Lyles is currently working on another children’s book, Grow Kind, so he has gardens on the mind. He worked with the students to design the set, using images from old Disney movies to help them visualize elements of the scene. Lyles introduced the students to the work of Mary Blair, the concept artist and animator behind films such as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.
Mary Lou Cobb took her time in the spotlight to thank the directors and her staff. She thanked her colleagues Melissa Shaw, Carmen McKeown, Carol Ross, Andrew Decker, Barbara Friedland, and the rest of Cobb’s teachers who do the heavy lifting during opera week—and every week. But, most important, Mary Lou said, were the children. She let them know how grateful she is for them, all of them, since the beginning.
To learn more about The Cobb School, Montessori and its arts program, visit cobbschool.com.