Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Opera App is more than a Toi! Toi! Toi!

I come from a household of teachers. Both my parents teach and raised me in the classroom. I graded papers (multiple-choice only) and ran ditto copies (yes, kids, that was how people made copies before Xerox). During summer breaks in college I worked as a teaching assistant with special education elementary children. Now, I run a box office which requires me to ‘teach’ on a daily basis – from ‘teaching’ my intern how to sell tickets to ‘teaching’ new subscribers about our production -- I ‘teach’ opera in 2 minute or less.

My wife, a volunteer coordinator for elderly services, works with many student volunteers from BHCC so I jumped at the opportunity to work with these students. The Office of Community Engagement oversees these partnerships.  The office helps students develop tangible skills through community service, civic engagement, and student activism. Through civic-centered or service-centered involvement, the Office of Community Engagement demonstrates to students the connection between community involvement and professional and personal development. What teaches personal development better than a 400 year-old art form associated with the socially elite and performed in a foreign language, right!? This challenge called for a creative lesson plan. (More after the jump)
 I paired up with Professor Jaime L'heureux’s IT Problem Solving course. The class aimed to develop mobile applications for Boston Lyric Opera. The students worked in groups to build mobile apps, using App Inventor software for Android mobiles. The process began with an introductory visit. These students hail from different backgrounds, financial brackets and native languages. When I presented to the class, I showed them how much opera knowledge they already had! We discussed popular opera references such as, Looney Tunes and The Simpsons. We referenced The Godfather, car commercials and discussed how the musical Rent found inspiration in La Boheme. I introduced them to BLO’s mission and shared the company’s goals for mobile apps. The primary challenges of this assignment were:

1.) Learn the software and build a functioning mobile app
2.) Develop a relationship and an understanding of Boston Lyric Opera

Throughout this community engagement course, students worked to find solutions, completed research and learned about mobile application technology. Students identified the needs and expectations of the client (BLO), learned to communicate effectively with the client while developing a strong work ethic and discovering their individual strengths within these potential career paths.

I worked with students to create a list of requirements for the app. We included calendars, production information, basic media and news updates. I then made a wishlist. As a technology junky I wanted games, an interactive seating map, allowing patrons to ‘meet their seat.’

This fall students attended our opera, Macbeth, emailed me requests for images, music clips and b-roll of recent BLO productions.  Students poured over our new website to absorb the branding and message of the company. In November I returned to classroom with Julie House (our Education and Community Programs Manager) to check on how each had developed. A representative from each group presented a basic model of their application and the goal functions.

I returned for the final presentations in December.

  • The first group built an app focused on instant access to information. The app, and each page of the app, opened with music (tracks which could be interchanged to reflect the current season). The app provided direct access to the BLO Facebook page, YouTube channel, and links to our homepage, the ticketing terminal on our website and a forum for news and discussion. The group’s intended to provide key information available in as few click-throughs as possible alongside visual and audio stimulation. This technique created many touch points throughout the interaction.
  • The second group created an app with a similar purpose, but with a different method. Instead of linking directly to certain portions of the web this app used  multiple buttons that accordion expanded into brief informative pages. These pages have links to targeted topics within our website. This application also included a calendar hosted through Google, allowing users to utilize the full functionality of a Google calendar. (i.e. add an opera event to a personal calendar and invite friends to join the event.)
  • The third group produced a very different app from the other two groups. This group presumed that apps are frequently downloaded for 2 reasons: (1) they are free and (2) they are entertaining. The group, influenced by their own new experiences with opera, sought to inform and entertain with the app. Using the game Rock Band as inspiration, the group built a game into the app. A small ball pops up on screen in time with a well-known opera song (dynamic feature on the back-end, allowing BLO to change the selection based on the season) and the user  earns points for the opera singer (in a Viking helmet) each time the ball is correctly touched. Upon winning the game, a glass breaks for hitting a high note. This game demonstrates a method I call “sneaking spinach in a brownie”. While playing the game the user is indirectly exposed to opera.
Working with these students on app development offers BLO an opportunity to increase our presence online and on mobile devices. Additionally, this project served as the beginning of a partnership between BLO and Bunker Hill Community College. After my final visit with the class, the Dean of Professional Studies requested I partner with Prof. Bryan Craven, Computer Media Technology Chair, to work on a similar project for his game design class.

--Kate Curtis, Audience Services Manager


  1. Will these apps actually happen so we can use them?

  2. These apps are still in development, but we hope to deploy a mobile app option soon! Stay tuned!

  3. Young lady, you missed your calling! You clearly are a great teacher-clear objectives, hands-on/real life experiential learning, knowlege gained through application (not rote), and obviously an enthusiastic, passionate rapport with your students!
    Wish I could be in your class! A+