From Murder to Disco: An Opera Inquiry
This may be the best story about teaching and learning you will ever read.
Of course, after reading the headline, most of the students excitedly spread the news that Oprah was coming to Davis. As it turned out, opera turned out to be at least as exciting as a visit from Oprah.
After the propitious question about opera, I quickly found a synopsis of Lucia di Lammermoor on the Internet. Students were glued to the screen as I projected, read, and acted out the story; even students in an early phase of English acquisition leaned forward, trying to figure out the story that was fueling all this excitement: the tragic loss of Lucia's parents and the family fortune, her brother's attempt to marry her off to a wealthy landowner, Lucia's love at first sight when a handsome young man rescues her from a charging wild bull, and Lucia's grisly murder of her bridegroom after she discovers she was tricked into marrying the wealthy landowner. At the end of the story, the children were clamoring to hear the "mad scene" from the opera. (Ahhh, YouTube!) After seeing Joan Sutherland descending into madness, frightening her wedding guests in her blood-spattered dress, they were not disappointed. Indeed, they wanted more.
Within the next hour we had watched the mechanical doll scene from Tales of Hoffman, a moving version of the love duet from Madama Butterfly, a stunning staging of the "Queen of the Night" aria from The Magic Flute, and several other classic opera moments. But for the ten- and eleven-year-olds in the room, the pièce de resistance was a version of the "Queen of the Night" aria sung by boy soprano Robin Schlotz, which we stumbled across at the end of the day. After the last note, the roughest toughest boy in my class yelled out, "Now that's talent!"
The kids were hooked. A few minutes later, on their way to the buses to go home, not several, but every boy and girl in my class was trying out a falsetto voice, creating many new versions of Mozart's coloratura aria. Students from other classes laughed, or stared in puzzlement.
I knew the next step was live opera, but my heart sank as I thought about the new district policy banning all field trips -- yes, all field trips. The rationale? Field trips "weren't educational," weren't preparing kids for the holy standardized tests. Of course, the teachers rebelled and I was one of the most vocal rebels, having taken up to fifteen field trips a year during previous years. (Now, a couple of years later, we are begrudged two trips a year if we jump through a few hoops, with students having to raise money for the trip and buses themselves -- difficult in a high-poverty community like that of my school). The only alternative was to see if Portland Opera could come to us, so after my bus duty, I rushed to call the opera company.
That's how I discovered Portland Opera to Go (POGO). Alexis Hamilton, the education and outreach manager, told me that, for an almost negligible cost, four singers and a pianist could come to my classroom and perform an improvised opera. In the interim, POGO provided a curriculum booklet that not only helped the children learn about opera, but inspired them to write their own operas. A few examples of the plot and musical "outlines" with which they began:
Opera Title: Love Forever
Beginning: A Mexican woman falls in love with an American man.
Middle: The Mexican girl’s dad finds out about the girl and the boy.
End: The dad kills the boy, the girl kills the dad, and the girl kills herself.
Finale: (sung by the girl): I am alone.
Miriam and Cynthia’s outline
Opera Title: Drunk Driving
Beginning: A man named Robert is drunk and going to the prom. He runs over a girl.
Middle: When the police arrive, they see the girl is still alive.
End: The girl forgives Robert and they head off to the prom to dance to some disco music.
Opera Title: Hiding from the Cops
Beginning: Man decides to steal a big purse.
Middle: The man gets into the purse to hide from the cops.
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