Out of the mouths of babes

My favorite part was when the girl died and then came back to life then died again then came back at the end.

I was amused by this response to the final scene in our school touring production of La Bohème, Final scene of La Bohemeas a group of our artists,  completing their round of 107 Northern California schools, came together to celebrate and read a stack of student letters. Perhaps not what our singers – or Puccini – intended. Even so, it is what the student saw and felt. It was not a guess at meaning or an attempt to explain. It was, for this student, precisely what it meant at that moment.

Another student writes,

 I learned that some people are in poverty.

A simple statement of a truth perhaps never before so consciously recognized. Other responses:

Your voices were so strong, I thought the janitor would be cleaning up shards of window glass.

I learned that it takes guts to be on the stage.

I learned that when you’re going to act you have to feel it from within not just from the outside.

I learned that love has a price and nothing can pay except death.

And this report from one of our artists:

The audience was very young and squirmy. Still, at Mimi’s death, everyone froze. It was beautiful. But there was also the moment in Act One when, during a quiet passage, a young boy, probably five years old and quite fed up with the lovey-dovey few minutes of that part of the opera, moaned out, “Oh, ENOUGH already!”

This may not be what we hoped for, but an authentic response nonetheless.

Susan Sontag, the celebrated American writer and cultural doyenne, died ten years ago this month. Rereading her famous essay “Against Interpretation,” I’m reminded of our quest in arts education to recapture a certain innocence of response, to cultivate “transparence” in our engagement with works of art, which, as defined by Sontag, is “experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.”


Kindergartners at Willow Glen Elementary School caught up in La Bohème. Click on the photo for the full story published in San Jose Mercury News. (Photo: Jacqueline Ramseyer/Bay Area News Group/Nov. 25, 2014.)


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Uncommon Coronado

Coronado2Coronado Elementary School currently operates out of a maze of portables tucked away behind the high school parking lot in Richmond, California, as it awaits a new building scheduled to open next fall.

An East Bay city with a rich past and a troubled present, Richmond made national news in 2012 when a series of explosions ripped through its huge Chevron oil refinery. The Chevron plant, site of a string of such fires in recent decades, is one of the area’s largest private employers, a testament to the often problematic relationship between livelihoods and quality of life. Richmond is the largest city in the country with a Green Party mayor, who made headlines herself last year with a proposal to use eminent domain to stem residential foreclosures.

5,000 years ago, Richmond was home to Ohlone Indian communities. In the early 20th century, Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad had its Western terminus there, and the city was important in ship-building during World War II (Richmond is home to Rosie the Riveter Museum). The supply of industrial jobs made Richmond a magnet for immigrants from Asia, Mexico, and Central America, and a destination for black migrants from the south.

This week, I visited Coronado Elementary School to see San Francisco Opera Guild’s Opera à la Carte school version of La Bohème. We’ve worked with Coronado for over ten years, mainly through the tireless efforts of teacher Norah Moore, a literacy specialist, who spearheads the program at the school and prepares the student actors for their participation.

Almost half Coronado School’s diverse student population are English Language Learners and nearly all qualify for free or reduced fee lunch. Performances take place in the high school’s cafetorium, on a stage without curtains or lights. In spite of frequent interruptions – security alarms, PA announcements, construction noise – the student actors and the chorus, led by music teacher Julie Bruins, were among the best I’ve seen. But what impressed me most was the rapt attention of the student audience. By Act II they all seemed ready to jump up on stage to revel with Parpignol. During the final scene, one student covered his head to hide tears, and I wondered what in his young life might have provoked this response.

Ellen Kerrigan, our long-time Opera à la Carte coordinator, writes:

“Coronado is the perfect example of how a dedicated teacher can inspire not only her own students but the entire school population. Richmond can be a challenging place to grow up, yet this school thrives. Norah understands the value of the arts, and continues to be a part of it even though she is now retired. Talented students might never have the opportunity to shine were it not for these kinds of programs and teachers.”

As was the case during the performance, these students’ lives are engulfed in a cacophony of distractions and disruptions. But as Azar Nafisi writes in her inspiring new book, The Republic of Imagination, “If there is one thing that should not be denied to anyone rich or poor it’s the opportunity to dream…we need the pristine beauty of truth as revealed to us in fiction, poetry, music, and the arts.”

To preserve the ability to respond fully to the world, to cultivate wide-awake engagement with the full range of life’s experiences – this is a true common core for which we as educators must continue to fight.

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Rags to Riches

Virtue is my splendor, love my wealth.

Rossini’s Cinderella. Opèra national de Paris production. Photo by Christian Lieber

So sings Rossini’s Cinderella, in shimmering coloratura, the outward semblance of her inner beauty.

Opening this Sunday at San Francisco Opera, the final dress rehearsal was our annual High School Night co-presented by the Opera and San Francisco Opera Guild. 1,500 students from across the Bay Area converged on the Opera House and the excitement was palpable; the onstage fun – and the message – mirrored in the faces of the young audience. Spruced up in sport coats, ties, and dresses, they abandoned electronic entertainment for a few hours to commune in a non-virtual reality, experience live performance, many for the first time, and witness the power of the pure, unprocessed human voice.

Opera was historically a public event that both common folk and nobility shared, where great masters provided musical spectacle to entertain but also convey political messages. In this case, as the subtitle of Cinderella indicates, “Goodness Triumphant” in a world obsessed with status and material wealth. Rossini’s genius, as with Mozart before and Verdi after, was the ability to dramatize through great music what might otherwise sink into superficial sentimentality.

Many of my own most memorable professional experiences in arts education have been in places like Newark, New Jersey, the South Bronx, and, in the Bay Area, neighborhoods of San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, and Pittsburg where young people, often met with social and cultural challenges, break free through the exercise of imagination, and rise to new heights.

The class differences at the heart of Cinderella are with us still. It was a thrill to experience an evening of great opera with such a wide and wide-eyed range of young people coming together from communities large and small, urban and rural, from public, parochial, independent, and home schools. I can only wish all audiences be this bound up in a spirit of discovery, engagement, and enthusiasm.  

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Andy Truett, a veteran teaching artist for San Francisco Opera Guild, sang in San Francisco Opera’s recent production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball as a chorus member. He is also a Marin County resident, so I asked him to introduce the opera to College of Marin students attending through the Guild’s Student Dress Rehearsal program. I hadn’t realized that Andy was an alumnus of the College. Their professor, Linda Noble Brown, writes:

Andy’s presentation about the opera really brought it to life for them. We were especially thankful, however, when he shared his personal story. Being an alumnus who had a troubled early life, many could relate. Seeing him in such a wonderful space in his life now, earning a living doing what he loves, it was so inspiring for many of our struggling students.

Andy Truett and Suzanne Lustgarten Truett as Rodolfo and Mimi.

Andy Truett and Suzanne Lustgarten Truett as Rodolfo and Mimi.

Andy, also an alumnus of San Rafael High School,  performed the role of Rodolfo there in our touring production of La Bohème. His wife, Suzanne, teaches Romance languages at the school and took on the role of Mimi, as she had back in 2008 when she was an artist on our roster. In addition to the poignancy of this real-life couple playing opposite each other, Andy again spoke to the audience about his difficult years as a teenager, and how his involvement with singing became the impetus for getting his life on track.

I recently attended an Arts Town Hall with candidates for San Francisco Supervisor. Much time was spent discussing the real estate market in the city – how it affects small non-profits’ ability to afford space as well as artists to afford housing. But the panel began with candidates recalling personal experiences with the arts, and, sure enough, one of the incumbent supervisors recollected the impact of attending an opera while a student at a San Francisco public school. I often hear similar stories from people who spent their childhood years here. San Francisco Opera Guild has provided these experiences to students for 75 years. Seeds planted bear fruit in unexpected ways in the sometimes elusive world of arts education.

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State of perpetual research

American education is in perpetual crisis.

So begins a recent Wall Street Journal article. It’s a bit like saying American journalism is in a state of perpetual hype. There’s some truth in it depending where you look.

The article in question “A Musical Fix for American Schools,” reviews a current study of positive effects of music education. But research is a fickle beast. As a colleague once put it, be careful about claiming the arts help teach math – research is liable to show that math teaches math best of all.

music testEllen Winner, a researcher associated with Harvard’s Project Zero and a co-author of the study, has been particularly guarded about claims of transfer of arts learning to other subjects. “If we are going to look for effects outside of music, I would look at things like persistence and discipline, because this is what’s required to play an instrument.” But serious study of any discipline requires these attributes. What I find missing in much of this research is investigation of specifically what aspects of music or arts study help develop these capacities. I recall one study that sought to establish that it was less the content of the arts but the manner in which they are customarily taught that makes the difference.

Elliot Eisner, Professor of Art and Education at Stanford, has examined these issues extensively, looking at arts education in a wide context of psychology, cognition, emotional development, and other intersecting streams (see, for example, his 2002 book Arts and the Creation of Mind.)

Amidst the current craze for hard data and quantitative research, there is still a lot to be said for qualitative research, as in case studies. I recently did my own little case study of one exceptional woman, Verna Parino, a longtime member of the Marin Chapter of San Francisco Opera Guild. Still active well into her 90’s, she circles the globe in pursuit of Ring Cycles. I was able to catch her this summer following a trip to Bulgaria. She attributes a passion for opera that developed later in life to early involvement in the arts, both at home and in school.

We can’t always know with certainty what facets of the world are going to speak most profoundly to our children. But we do want something to abide with them during increasingly hectic lives, in ways that will motivate them in school and return to sustain them in later years.

What, besides an alarm clock or the upstairs neighbor’s kids, will continue to get you up in the morning?

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Get out your handkerchiefs

I just returned from watching our abridged, English-language version of La Bohème among an audience of several hundred high school students as part of our Opera à la Carte program. During the final scene you could hear a pin – and a few tears – drop.

In the Q & A that followed, a student asked a great question – do singers get the urge to cry when performing? As in all theatre, it may be absolutely appropriate for a character to shed tears if the situation merits. The problem, of course, is that you’re also trying to sing.OALC la boheme fall 2008 037

Our Marcello, Mark Hernandez, answered that one of the few times he felt so moved was just in this particular version of La Bohème, due to the special energy reflected back from young audiences.

Musically, La Bohème, stands firmly in the tradition of Italian lyric opera. Some would say it represents the genre at its best. But the subject could not be more different than anything before it. These are not the lives of queens, heroines, gods, and goddesses treated in most opera but the passing highs and lows of everyday life as experienced by a group of struggling artists.

We all feel the triumphs and tragedies of our daily lives deeply. But putting a slice of life on the stage of an opera house risks frothing it up beyond recognition, like too much schlag on a slice of Key lime pie.

Puccini was a master of overblown theatrics and one of his favorites was bringing young children into the action (notably in Madama Butterfly as well as La Bohème). But there is something genuinely touching in seeing young people in the roles of Colline and Schaunard, as well as the smaller parts we design as speaking roles for students in this production. La Bohème is, after all, an opera about people not so much older. This version, by Ellen Kerrigan and Baker Peeples, retains all the essentials. And as a composer hugely effective at capturing emotions in fleeting musical phrases, Puccini’s style and subject lend themselves supremely well to this treatment.

I don’t think a video would do justice to the impact of the final moments of this Bohème, but here I share that scene of life lived to its fullest, Christmas Eve at the Café Momus.

Our school audience was enchanted, as will be students at a hundred more schools across the Bay Area this fall. Somewhere up there, I believe, Puccini is smiling, and crying, along with them.


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How to create an opera (in ten easy lessons)


4th graders enact Gold Rush history in an original opera at Lynwood School in Novato.

If you can boil water, if you can breathe, you are on the verge. Take two or three important moments of your life, fleeting moments of love, of loss. Your opera is filled with tragedy and comedy; it’s over the top and scraping the bottom; it has daring heroes and demanding divas; and (hopefully) gorgeous costumes and breathtaking scenery.

Walt Whitman writes, “That music always round me, unceasing, unbeginning, yet long untaught I did not hear

We all have this potential waiting to find a voice.

Teaching Artists at San Francisco Opera Guild are currently working with 4th and 5th grade classes to unleash the operas inside them. In our Book to Bravo! program, they guide students over a ten-week period in creating original music-theatre pieces to perform for their schools. This fall, we’ll see operas based on the myths of Perseus and Orion, on Native American and African folk tales. Pouring their own experience into these stories, the students become heroes and goddesses, coyotes and shamans, finding connections between their own lives and those of people who lived centuries ago and half a world away.

The notion that opera is only for experts or connoisseurs – these students prove that nothing could be further from the truth. Even we, as part of the audience in the opera house, create stories anew within ourselves as we plot with Figaro and plod with Falstaff, love with Rodolfo and die with Mimi.

So go sing a scena for your supper or croon a cabaletta through an echoing canyon! Go create – and live – an opera!

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