How to create an opera (in ten easy lessons)

Hangtown

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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Loud, crazy, and violent

“It’s too loud, it’s too crazy, it’s too violent…I love it.”

Norma, Rigoletto, Carmen?

You guessed it: professional football (by way of Gregg Easterbrook, journalist and author of The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America. )

Susannah1_SFO_P

Patricia Racette as Susannah. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The analogy with the outsized drama that is opera struck me (or tackled me, if you will) in light of current news and San Francisco Opera’s recent production of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.

Susannah dramatizes the victimization of a young woman, made possible by the tolerance, indeed, the active participation, of community leaders. It’s a brilliant libretto, and while Floyd had the McCarthy hearings in mind when he wrote it, it holds much wider implications for abuse of power – sexual, religious, and political. Another message is that young people raised in a climate where coercion and violence are acceptable responses may ultimately adopt these themselves.

Easterbrook calls football the king of sports “because it expresses what we are as a nation.” Perhaps in the way Verdi expressed what Italy was as a nation in the 19th century?

But here the analogy ends. Opera and the arts do much more than simply “hold up a mirror to society.” If football is governed by survival of the fittest, opera is a product of intelligent design. There is a creative force that molds what happens on the stage.

Shortly, several hundred of our San Francisco Opera Guild students will attend a dress rehearsal of SF Opera’s next production, Verdi’s A Masked Ball. Based on the true story of the assassination of King Gustav of Sweden, the censors, worried about giving anyone ideas, forced Verdi to move the setting of the original production to Colonial Boston.  What really stands out in Verdi’s opera, however, is the importance of integrity, honesty, and justice, even in the face of grave circumstances.

As theatre was in Shakespeare’s England, opera in Verdi’s Italy was a means to sway public opinion and curtail extreme inclinations of the nobility. Methinks Roger Goddell, the team owners, and certain NFL players, would benefit from a night at the opera.

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The Artistry of Teaching

“We may never know what our influence has been, but we must be the beacon of light towards our students’ rich and full futures.”

Viletta Skillman, who studied voice and “dreamed of becoming an opera singer” before choosing a teaching career, writes this in Why I Teach, a moving collection of stories by teachers about students they have influenced, and that have influenced them, in life-changing ways. It was compiled by Esther Wright, herself an educator who worked for over 20 years in the San Francisco public schools.

As I’m sure is true for many of us, teachers were a huge inspiration for me growing up, and teachers continue to be an inspiration here at San Francisco Opera Guild. Teachers, as well as students, are often in awe of what our visiting artists are able to do as singers and actors. But I continue to be amazed by what teachers accomplish every day on the stage that is the school classroom, a stage that, while small, is filled with great dramas – comedies and tragedies – where teachers serve as performers, directors, choreographers – in a word, as artists.

A scene from the Opera à la Carte production of La Bohème.

A scene from the Opera à la Carte production of La Bohème.

We are currently gearing up for Opera à la Carte, which brings a 45-minute English-language version of La Bohème to school audiences throughout the Bay Area. We work with an extraordinary group of professional singers, some who sing with the San Francisco Opera Chorus, others who appear regularly in leading roles with regional opera companies. All choose to spend a portion of their careers sharing their artistry with young people. Their motivation comes from the same place of deep caring evident in all great teachers.

Curriculum, best teaching practices – these are important. But what good teaching really comes down to is a trusting, nurturing relationship between an adult and a young person, with the teacher sharing her or his complete, authentic self in a way that is open and receptive to students as individuals and the experiences of their lived lives.

I dedicate this post to two extraordinary teachers recently deceased: Maxine Greene, former Professor Emerita at Teachers College of Columbia University, and Bel Kaufman, author of Up the Down Staircase. Greene was 96; Kaufman 103. They each inspired generations of teachers and thereby untold thousands upon thousands of young people through their teaching, their writings, and their lives.

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Where were you in ’39?

Vogue Cover

The Cover of Vogue, September, 1939 by Christian Berard. Courtesy art.com.

Opera is synonymous with passion – thrilling drama, brilliant singing, breathtaking scenery. Through the ages, the spectacle in the house equaled that on stage, an opportunity to flaunt the latest fashions and pursue furtive liaisons.

Mark Hopkins Dinner

A formal dinner at the Mark Hopkins, 1939. SF History Center, SF Public Library.

Opening night at the opera continues to be an occasion for high fashion and celebration. This year’s Opera Ball, marking the 75th anniversary of San Francisco Opera Guild, also affords a moment to look back to the year of the Guild’s birth, 1939.

Jerry Brown

Gov. Edmund G. Brown and family, 1939. SF History Center, SF Public Library.

Some of us might have been in the baby ward that year with Francis Ford Coppola, Ralph Lauren, or Tina Turner, or playmates of future Governor Jerry Brown, shown here portentously learning to count on his fingers.

San Francisco Opera Season 1939 WMOH Manon Bidu Sayao Photographer  Lawrence B  Morton # 40702-10

Bidu Sayão as Manon, 1939. Photo by Lawrence B. Morton, SF Opera Archives.

Our own future mom or dad may have been watching in awe as grandmama donned her full-length formal gown with cinched waist, peplum, and white, shoulder-length gloves, and grandpapa trotted out in white tie and tails before going off to opening night – in 1939, Massenet’s Manon, conducted by Gaetano Merola and starring legendary Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão.

Opera House Audience

Audience singing “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men” at the War Memorial Opera House, Christmas evening, 1939. SF History Center, SF Public Library.

 

 

 

It was a great year for San Francisco as our city welcomed the world to the Golden Gate International Exposition, celebrating the recent completion of the two longest suspensions bridges of the time – the Golden Gate and the Oakland Bay – on newly-built Treasure Island. Revelry that fall, however, was tempered by the shadow of the German invasion of Poland on September 1.

At the same time that the Guild was creating a place at the table for women as active supporters of our opera company and opera education, Marian Anderson was making operatic and civil rights history with her concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson sings at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1939.

As we celebrate the great legacies of our city, our opera company, and our Guild with an evening of wine, Druid women, and song, let’s raise a toast to our forebears, on whose shoulders (amply padded)  we stand – the generations of opera-ball goers who embraced a vision for the future of opera, education, and culture that continues to this day.

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Opera on the rocks

dowsing

SF Opera General Director David Gockley takes it on the chin – and the face – from Music Director Nicola Luisotti.

As buckets of ice water pummeled San Francisco Opera senior staff in response to the ALS challenge, my colleague Martha Chesley remarked that this was a great example of harnessing the internet for a good cause (ALS research, that is – not dowsing our esteemed colleagues). But, as with any facet of technology (such as nuclear physics) or system of thought (such as religion), the internet can serve purposes good and bad – witness the recent trolling of Robin Williams’s daughter, or the tragedy of Tyler Clementi. It’s not the medium, it’s the messenger.

This can be true of the arts, as well. Martial music has been used to spur combatants to glory and the grave (taranatara!). Research points to harmful effects of violent video games; misogynistic rap lyrics may perpetuate heinous attitudes toward women.

Kazuo Ishiguro, best known for The Remains of the Day, examines this double edge in An Artist of the Floating World, a poignant novel recounting the life of a fictional Japanese nationalist painter in the aftermath of World War II.

Censorship is not the answer. Freedom of ideas and expression is essential to personal and social development. But it’s ever more important to be able to make critical judgments amidst a deluge of images and information.

Arts education is ideally suited for promoting just this kind of discriminating thought. Great works of art revel in ambiguity, present new perspectives, and cultivate our ability to “hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald cited as a benchmark of intelligence. Like a cold shower, the arts have the power to shock us into new realizations. As we navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of cyberspace, arts education and the habits of mind it stimulates are needed more than ever.

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Cognitive dissonance

One of my favorite reports from the field came some years ago from an artist teaching basic music to a 4th grade class:

Artist: So if consonance means the notes sound stable and match, what do we call it when notes go against each other and sound unstable or clash?

Eager student:  Incontinence?

Mistakes are essential to growth, and teachers strive to create an atmosphere where students can err without embarrassment. As educators, we want space for intellectual risk, which often comes with emotional and social risk, as well. Particularly in the arts, we encourage pushing the envelope of convention and daring a plunge into new frontiers.

I fear, however, our society is increasingly intolerant of teachers or schools that take such risks.

Boheme snapshot

Opera à la Carte rehearsal of La Bohème

Each year, San Francisco Opera Guild mounts a 45-minute English-language version of a classic opera with professional singers under the banner of Opera à la Carte. Students perform specially designed speaking roles and choral parts. Last year’s Barber of Seville toured 105 schools across the Bay Area. This year it’s La Bohème, and word is that some teachers are reluctant to present a work ending with the death of the central character. I have pointed out – not entirely in jest – that this provides a teachable moment about the effects of an inadequate health care system.

But whether it be life and death, love and loss, revenge, adultery, murder – any of the common themes in our great operas – isn’t the educational environment exactly the place where we want young people to have the opportunity to explore their beliefs, fears, and hopes? And don’t the arts provide the perfect context for this?

I’m reminded of many a wonderful project provided by arts educators to help students deal with strong emotions in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. I also think of Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment wherein the great child psychologist argues that the violence of fairy tales provides a framework for children to master anxieties. Did you know that in the original Snow White the evil Queen devours what she believes is her daughter’s heart?

Disneyfication is a psychological equivalent to over-sanitization of our physical environment, which many scientists believe has helped lead to the recent rise in asthma and allergies. I urge us to give schools and teachers more license to take risks in presenting challenging works of art and literature that present difficult themes in appropriately sensitive ways. And letting our kids frolic in the mud once in a while might be a good thing, too.

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The Calculus of Joy

Joy

A student performs in an Opera à la Carte school production.

A committed teacher writes for help in advocating for the field trips and visits from professional performers that our programs provide: “I am struggling to remove my emotional self from the conversation and stick to the educational value. Yet I fear that after all these years of selling the arts, I am a bit battle fatigued.”

With decades of experience and research behind us, we still struggle to justify robust arts education programs. Sandra Ruppert, Executive Director of the Arts Education Partnership, a national research and advocacy organization, cites “a ‘policy paradox’ of strong policies for the arts in education at the state level but weak implementation of those same policies at the school level. “ So often, I find that serious inclusion of arts is a grass roots phenomenon – the efforts of particular teachers, parents, and school leaders with strong convictions.

We live in a world of data, testing, standards – and failing schools. Schools are now being asked to reorganize around Common Core Standards. Arts educators see this as a positive development, since higher-level thinking skills embedded in Common Core dovetail so well with what we do.  Yet, when I approached a group of teachers a few years back with an arts project designed to help implement Common Core, they pleaded with me to have the program as a break from standards, saying that they and their students needed a breath of air.

Our work in arts learning can and must be assessed in ways meaningful and convincing to educators and the larger community. But then there are the things that remain – ephemeral, elusive to easy capture – often just the qualities that make the arts a breath of air.  As Albert Einstein once said “not everything that counts can be counted.”

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