Monday, June 3, 2013

Making New Discoveries: Grade School Children Learn About Opera

On Friday, May 31, I had the great pleasure of attending my second Festival of Classroom Operas in partnership with Wheelock Family Theatre as the Director of Community Engagement at BLO.  This festival is the culminating, celebratory event for the Music! Words! Opera! program where classrooms that have progressed to creating their own original operas are able to come together and share their work.  

Nine classrooms participated in the program this year, and though we didn’t see everyone at the festival, we celebrated many successes  for educators who have been teaching their students about classic operas and seeing young faces (and in some cases, hearing nervous giggles) as students listened to famous arias and chorus numbers for the very first time.  Students have attended BLO rehearsals, welcomed BLO Artists into their classrooms, and in the swell of all these new sounds, unfamiliar languages, colorful costumes, and long-gone composers, they set upon the daunting task of writing their own opera. The question “Well, where in the world do I begin?” immediately comes to mind, doesn’t it?

Festival participants took part in theatre workshops led by BLO and WFT Teaching Artists and demonstrated their operas onstage to an audience of their peers.  All very fun, and very entertaining.   

My favorite part of the day was the conversation that took place among the students after they finished performing their operas.  Led by WFT’s Director of Education, I was impressed by the way children in grades 2 – 5 articulated their observations about their experience.  

Some of the topics:
* Facing stage fright                             
* Negotiating uncooperative props and set pieces
* Unexpected audience reaction
* Problem-solving and improvising together
* (And my favorite) Struggling with the sometimes confounding problem of playing a character while still being just a normal, living, breathing person standing on a stage.  This can be quite the uncomfortable problem for the soldier onstage being played by a ten-year-old with an itchy nose! 

As I reflect on the festival and seeing these discoveries unfold, I find that I am most in awe of the process that preceded the demonstrations, and as the school year ends, what more could still be done for which there is, sadly, no time left. It’s the process that is important. In the past two seasons I have seen classroom story ideas generate from many different sources: learning about immigration in social studies lessons, a language arts folktale writing assignment, an inspiring or fun song from music class, an adaptation of a classic myth, even an historical dance—the list goes on and on. As I think about this idea, I am thrilled to know that children are discovering that there are stories everywhere and they are worth telling.

Though it gets more challenging, because in the performing arts, we don’t just tell stories—we show them.  And in opera, we also sing them!  From concept and writing, melody and score, character choices, movement and dance, breath and projection, costumes, sets, and props (whew!),  there is no way for one 15-minute performance to convey all the real successes of these students.

So how do you measure success?  By seeing a theatre full of young children thinking and talking like artists.  When you’re thinking like an artist, you’re thinking like a team member, a problem-solver, and a storyteller.  Like someone without ego, but confident.  Like someone with more questions than answers, always making new discoveries.

Megan Cooper
Director of Community Engagement 

Photos courtesy of Ben Gebo Photography

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