A professional opera singer readied himself at the piano in a cramped Camden classroom one recent morning.

"Are you ready to risk it?" he asked the students crowded round.

Then the visiting instructor began to play a chorus from the famous 19th-century opera Carmen, which is written in French - a language none of these Creative Arts High School vocal students had ever spoken a word of until very recently.

The enchanting music filled the room. It was the part in the opera where the village children pour into the town square to imitate some passing soldiers.

"Avec la garde montante," the students sang, their blending voices growing confident as they declared themselves soldiers marching proudly.

"Very good," said the instructor. "Let's start again."

This was more than just a music appreciation class.

Rather, these 16 young and aspiring alto, tenor, soprano, and bass singers were preparing for their first professional opera.

When the Walt Whitman Arts Center begins its fall opera season Friday with a debut performance of Georges Bizet's Carmen, the Camden kids will be singing chorus. And three classmates will play in the orchestra.

The students' operatic debuts are a result of a partnership that the school's dedicated vocal instructor, Suzzette Ortiz, formed with the arts center.

Ortiz, 50, has taught music in Camden schools for more than two decades, and in recent years led the choir to first-place finishes at competitions in Italy and Puerto Rico and national events in New York and Virginia.

"So many of our students have gone through such trying life experiences," she said before a class. "They have those experiences with them when they sing, and they sing with such heart."

Alicia Santiago, a 16-year-old soprano from Fairview, was taken by the pluck of Carmen - the beautiful Spanish gypsy who enchants love-smitten soldiers and bullfighters before meeting her tragic end.

"It's the story of a girl who doesn't want to be held down," she said.

The students learned two weeks ago, the first day of school, that they had been invited to perform at the arts center. Since then, with help of the professional cast members, they have been practicing in their classroom and at grueling dress rehearsals, with some sessions stretching as long as five hours.

"They are great, wonderful," boasted maestro Robert McFarland, the Walt Whitman Art Center's artistic director, who will conduct the performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the center and Oct. 1 and 3 at the Salem High School auditorium.

"It's been inspiring the way they've learned the music in so short of time," he said.

The students are equally thrilled.

"I'm singing in a professional opera," said Nissim Steeley, 16, a junior bass singer. "That's not something many kids from Camden get to do."

On a block of crumbling homes and vacant lots, the tight-knit school of 163 students, which is part of Camden's school system, serves as a safe haven - an "escape," a number of the students said - in a city where dreams die young.

"We're like a big family that looks out for each other," said Joel Wiggins, 17, a bass singer from North Camden. "Once you step inside here, you forget about everything else."

In class, many of the students call Ortiz "Mom."

"The respect I have for her can't be topped," said James Jenkins, 17, another senior bass singer.

When Pattricia Patiño, executive director of the arts center, called Ortiz in late August about a new program aiming to involve students in professional performances, Ortiz jumped at the chance, no matter the short notice.

"Are you serious?" Kayla Lomax, 17, a senior soprano singer, remembered asking when Ortiz first played a recording of Carmen in class.

Though they had sung in Italian, Spanish, and German, the students had never performed in French, with its tricky pronunciations.

"Don't anybody panic," Ortiz said. "We could do this."

Ortiz spent hours photocopying the opera's sheet music, and one student burned a stack of practice CDs for the students to take home.

Lomax prepares for morning practices while riding an NJ Transit bus to school, she said.

With the opera playing over her headphones, she said, she sings along to her favorite aria, the infectious "Habanera," in which Carmen warns her suitors of her fickle heart.

"Prends garde à toi!" - you'd best beware, she sings.

She said her performances did not garner stares from other passengers.

"Luckily, there is always somebody else on the bus doing something more outrageous," she said.

As Wednesday night's dress rehearsal was set to begin, Santiago, a wisp of a girl with a big smile, sat near the stage. She practices by singing to her infant cousin.

Along with music, she wants to study early childhood education in college and open a day-care center in Camden one day.

"I want to stay and make a difference."

Already, she said, some of her friends who do not attend the Creative Arts School have gotten into trouble with drugs and stealing, she said.

When she traveled to New York City with the choir last year, she said, she enjoyed peering out over the city from the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

And now there is the opera.

"I am so excited," she said, smiling.

And with that, the maestro called the students to the stage.

Contact staff writer Mike Newall at 856-779-3237 or mnewall@phillynews.com.