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P.J. MacAlpine and her son Christopher MacAlpine-Belton P.J. MacAlpine and her son Christopher practice their instruments at the UC Berkeley Student Parents' Center. (Carol Hyman photos)

"Sneaky Pete Alley" comes alive in student opera production

– P. J. MacAlpine, a recent University of California, Berkeley, graduate, is back on campus this summer, taking theater classes to prepare her to be the assistant director and choreographer for "Sneaky Pete Alley," an opera that she's written with help from her 14-year-old son.

The production will debut this fall at the Experimental Group Young People's Theatre (EGYPT) in Oakland.

The opera grew from the seeds of a poem, "Sneaky Pete Alley," that MacAlpine's father, Arthur, wrote. He was a policeman in Springfield, Mass., and she remembers his stories about growing up during the depression and about the colorful characters he would meet on his job.

"The people he'd meet, to him they weren't winos or bums, they were family," she said. "He saw what could have been — there could have been a cure for cancer, or a good parent. He saw people with troubles. He didn't see victims."

It was those images that inspired MacAlpine to write her opera. The music, ranging from classical to blues to jazz, reflects the moods of the individuals portrayed.

The main character, Jasper, grew up on Sneaky Pete Alley. In a flashback to his youth in the 1920s, he sees his mother killed in the speakeasy, Sneaky Pete's.

The opera tells Jasper's story, and his realization that, despite advances in technology, the world really has not changed much.

"The opera is about moving on," MacAlpine explained. "You want to progress beyond the people before you, and Jasper realizes that."

Gerald Wright, an Oakland resident who is active in the local drama scene, will be directing "Sneaky Pete Alley." He met MacAlpine when she was in one of his musical productions.

"I often get people who come to me about a show they'd like to do," Wright said. "One night we had finished rehearsal, and P.J. asked me if I'd like to hear a song from her opera. She astounded me. She's a marvelous singer, but beyond that, the story was amazing. It just knocked me out."

Wright looked at an early draft of the libretto, and was impressed. "I said, 'Oh, my goodness, I have got to be involved with this project,'" he said. "P.J. is so passionate about not just the music, but the story of the opera. She is really thrilled about the characters and their relationships."

 PJ and Christopher
Macalpine is homeschooling Christopher, who many have decided is an "old soul."
MacAlpine is not the only one in her family involved in this production. Her son, Christopher MacAlpine-Belton, co-wrote the libretto with her and will appear in the opera. MacAlpine has been homeschooling Christopher for the past year, and he hopes to get his equivalency when he is 16 and go on to college. Christopher, whom MacAlpine refers to as "my best friend," has been described by many who know him as having "an old soul." He maintains a website on the family's activities, and he also has spent time with MacAlpine at the Student Parents' Center at UC Berkeley, where his mother holds a part-time job.

"Chris is great to have around the center," said Sondra Roueny, who also works there. "He's very interactive with the kids."

Roueny and MacAlpine got to know each other when they arrived at UC Berkeley three years ago. They both have relied on the Student Parent Center to help them get through what could have been a difficult transition. "The support system is key," Roueny said. "If P.J. and I hadn't had the center, I don't know if either of us would be here."

Along with working at the Student Parent Center, her full-time studies and homeschooling Christopher, MacAlpine also took private flute lessons with Janet Maestre, a UC Berkeley music department faculty member.

"I always looked forward to her lessons because she came in with such enthusiasm and a will to learn," Maestre said. "At first it was difficult because she came in with a jazz style, but she never showed frustration."

Recently in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, MacAlpine had played flute with the U.S. Marine Corps Jazz Combo, while on active duty. Once at UC Berkeley, she turned to Maestre to help her become a more accomplished classical musician.

Maestre recalls the day MacAlpine asked if she could sing her an aria from "Sneaky Pete Alley."

"I had no idea that she had the talent that she had when she sang the aria," Maestre said. "First of all, her voice is so beautiful, but the composition was excellent."

MacAlpine also studied with Bay Area jazz vocalist Suzanne Pittson and with UC Berkeley music department faculty member Allen Shearer for classical voice training.

While still refining "Sneaky Pete Alley," MacAlpine and her son are preparing for the production. They are looking for sponsors, raising money, and will soon hold auditions and begin preliminary rehearsals.

After the opera production, MacAlpine said she will weigh options, including returning to school or continuing a career in writing, making music and "continuing to look for challenges so someone else won't have to."