We must believe it is true

As they prepare for the trials of fire and water in The Magic Flute, Pamina and Tamino sing

We walk, by the power of music,
in joy through death’s dark night.

The third movement of Luciano Berio’s 1969 Sinfonia, echoes Mozart’s theme

Tomorrow we’ll read that (here the narrator inserts the name of any work on the same program) made tulips grow in my garden and altered the flow of the ocean currents. We must believe it is true.

And last Friday, Bruce Olstad, teaching artist in San Francisco Opera Guild’s Opera Junior program, wrote

Fairy Queen 2

Photo by Otak Jump.

On this night of hopelessness and wordless grief, I found myself driving to lead Otak Jump’s 4th & 5th grade class in a performance we’ve been working on together for the last ten weeks: an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with songs from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen.

That’s right – 4th & 5th graders memorizing an hour’s worth of Shakespeare’s poetry and Purcell’s music.

And suddenly, I find hope again in that school auditorium. Young people, working to capacity and beyond, creating something beautiful together. The exact opposite of what happened in Paris – its antithesis and its antidote.

It may be that no one ever stopped a war by putting on a play or opera. But how many hardened, warlike hearts are opened, softened, and expanded by experiencing our shared humanity through the arts?

Shakespeare’s Puck says, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” All of us, in the same boat, leaky as it may be. All of us capable of great foolishness, of great courage, of great ugliness, of great beauty.

Shine your lights most brightly now, artists! And to all, be fierce for the arts and arts education! The world depends on it.

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The year of learning magically

The so-called Mozart effect, that listening to music can enhance certain cognitive tasks, has also come to refer to the relationship between music and learning in general.

Since the late 1970’s, when school budgets across the country faced onerous cuts, music and the arts have been pressed to prove their worth. Demographic upheavals, declining test scores, and the stubborn achievement gap have resulted in the arts needing to justify themselves on grounds that they support academic results, particularly in English Language Arts and Math.

Jun Kaneko’s colorful SF Opera production of The Magic Flute. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Many experts have cautioned against these instrumental claims, as Alfie Kohn argues in a recent Education Week commentary “Do This and You’ll Get That: A Bad Way to Defend Good Programs.”

But perhaps the pendulum is swinging. Building on substantial research, some schools, districts, and statewide education networks such as Create CA are recognizing the value of arts education not for the sake of academics, but to foster imagination, creativity, and innovation.

Which brings us to Mozart’s The Magic Flute.


Students from Novato’s Lynwood Elementary School with Efrain Solis (Papageno) outside the War Memorial Opera House.

At San Francisco Opera Guild, this is the year of the Flute. We began in July with a production by our Summer Conservatory students set in present-day San Francisco as a struggle among technology, politics, and counter-culture. Quickly on its heels was our abridged Opera à la Carte version which will tour more than 100 Northern California schools this fall. And last week, nearly two thousand Bay Area students attended rehearsals of San Francisco Opera’s current production.

The Magic Flute, a perennial favorite, is at once opera, fairy tale, Masonic treatise, rowdy folk musical, and a journey across a precarious moral landscape. It reaches back to childlike impulses and anticipates divine potential. Musically, it traverses the gamut of 18th century style.

The impact of a masterpiece of this kind, whether opera or other genre, is the transdisciplinary and transcendent experience it provides, probing our emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual selves. And the special magic of the Flute is that it works on so many levels, embracing young and old, novice and veteran. In its aura, we confront questions of love and truth, and ponder life’s eternal mysteries: a Mozart effect with something to teach everyone.

“O Isis and Osiris” with 14 year-old Jared Werlein as Sarastro in San Francisco Opera Guild’s 2015 Summer Conservatory production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
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A question of vision

Trojan Horse

San Francisco Opera photo by Cory Weaver.

Beware Greeks bearing gifts.

Thus the priest Laocoon famously warns his countrymen against the perfidious horse. The Trojans, in their hubris, ignore what hides in plain sight.

San Francisco Opera recently opened its resplendent production of The Trojans, the monumental work by Hector Berlioz based on episodes from Virgil’s Aeneid.

Some may recall – not so fondly, perhaps – parsing Virgil when it was still a matter of widespread academic pedigree to study Latin. The offering of Latin in high schools declined in the 60’s and 70’s, although there have been more recent spurts of renewed interest. It is a domain that has served many young people well throughout their formal education and into adult life.

Berlioz’s epic interpretation, composed to his own libretto, is thoroughly French and 19th century in its focus on passionate human relationships, although their impotence in the face of destiny still figures prominently. The power of these ancient texts never seems to wane, whether in the original or in the panoply of operatic, theatrical, and cinematic reimaginings through the ages.

An educational dilemma that has dogged us for a century: do we provide all students an equivalent curriculum, including, for example, classical languages and literature? Or do we steer young people into areas we deem more relevant to their day-to-day lives and what we foresee to be their likely futures?

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children.” This is John Dewey’s straightforward dictum from Democracy and Education published in 1916. Cited by Diane Ravitch at the front of Reign of Error, her 2013 polemic against charter schools, vouchers, and a range of federal education policies, she goes on to argue

Poor and immigrant children need the same sorts of schools that wealthy children have, only more so. Those who start life with the fewest advantages need even smaller classes, even more art, science, and music to engage them, to spark their creativity, and to fulfill their potential.

Not to diminish the importance of subjects at the focus of the growing batteries of tests, it seems to me our responsibility as educators to provide the widest and most varied curriculum, to “open vistas of possibility,” as Maxine Greene often said of the arts. In this way, young people may grow to see beyond what is in plain sight, both for themselves and for their communities.

An excerpt from an original music-theater work created by 4th & 5th graders at Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto as part of San Francisco Opera Guild’s Book to Bravo! program. NB: If you receive this post in an email, you will need to open it in a web browser to view the video.


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Budding talents


How the First Rainbow was Made, written and performed by 5th graders at Vallecito Elementary School, San Rafael

Like spring flowers, new operas are blooming all around. In a single week this May, I saw no fewer than eight: one, the American premiere of Tarik O’Regan ‘s Heart of Darknessthree written and performed by students in San Francisco Opera Guild’s Book to Bravo! program and four from classes in San Francisco Opera’s ARIA program. There were interpretations of American folklore, the California gold rush, colonial history, and a fantasy where time pirates transport Magellan, Columbus, and Marco Polo to meet Oprah Winfrey, Katy Perry, and Maroon 5 in present day Marin County. Opera leaves no stone unchurned.

Buffalo Woman

Buffalo Woman, written and performed by 3rd graders at Caliber Beta Academy, Richmond

Little Angel

The Little Angel of Colombia, written and performed by 6th & 7th graders at Martin Luther King, Jr. JHS, Pittsburg.

While not as sophisticated as Heart of Darkness, many of the student mini-operas captured their source materially equally well. What? Compare a 3rd grade rendition of Paul Goble’s Buffalo Woman to a professional premiere? As Robert Duke writes in Intelligent Music Teaching, goals “remain the same from the first day of instruction to the time when the student reaches the highest level of artistic musicianship.” Content may change, but from the first line we ask our youngest students to write and sing, to the complex melodies of professional masters, artistry is a pursuit at any level and every age.

San Francisco Opera debuts an unusual work this summer season, Two Women (La Ciociara) by Marco Tutino and Fabio Ceresa, possibly the first Italian opera premiered by an American company since Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West more than a century ago. It will be interesting to see how this new work, an interpretation of the classic de Sica film, measures up to those of our students.

Great Horn Spoon

By the Great Horn Spoon!, written and performed by 4th graders at Lynwood Elementary School, Novato.

Mounting an operatic premiere is no easy matter, whether a full-length work performed on the professional stage or a 15-minute mini-opera in a school lunchroom. Both embody significant accomplishments – both may have great impact, each in its way.


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A powerful innovation

When you walk into Sandra Murdoch’s 5th grade classroom at Lynwood Elementary School in Novato, you enter a tropical rainforest teeming with the life of young imaginations. Mrs. Murdoch has filled spaces everywhere with visible evidence of student learning.class with Sam

Like caterpillars, student understandings may slowly inch along at first. Given the right environment, they are capable of devouring the leaves of entire trees, eventually emerging as butterflies. With a little finesse, you can capture and pin them to the wall to marvel at their colors. But they are at their most magnificent in the open air, gathering nectar from the flowers.

Nancie Atwell, an educator from rural Maine, was recently selected to receive the Varkey Foundation’s first Global Teaching Award from an international field of finalists. As reported in a Washington Post blog, the most important innovation of Atwell’s approach is student choice. Students choose individual books and subject matter, allowing them to invest themselves “in the way a literary critic does, a writer does, a mathematician does, a historian does, a scientist does, out of real curiosity, real passion, a real sense of motivation.” Atwell eschews tests and quizzes, assessing students exclusively through portfolios of their work.

Similarly, San Francisco Opera Guild’s Book to Bravo! residency program asks students to invest themselves as artists do, as they collaborate to make choices about plot, music, lyrics, and how to portray a story in performance.

Book to Bravo wall

Sandra Murdoch’s Book to Bravo! wall with student responses, writing, music, and photos. Her 5th graders are working on an original music- theatre piece related to famous explorers.

While transience is part of the beauty of performing arts, it does present a challenge to communicating its impact on learning. Mrs. Murdoch, a Guild partner for 19 years, has clearly put a great deal of thought and effort into sharing her students’ learning process and creative choices with the wider community.

“We are our choices,” Sartre said. The ability to choose wisely, discriminately, and with foresight is ever more important in our modern, free society where choices have multiplied exponentially. Choosing well is embedded in critical thinking and creativity, key capacities we seek to cultivate in Book to Bravo! classes.

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The core of the matter

Opera is one of the most profound and moving means that the human race has developed for storytelling. When we hear Violetta’s final aria from La Traviata, we’re not just hearing about a 19th century courtesan dying of consumption. This is about love lost, opportunity foregone, precious lives cut short by illness, things that, sadly, affect most of us at some point. Opera plots are frameworks through which we can understand our own lives.

In this way, General Director David Gockley illuminated a defining attribute of opera at San Francisco Opera’s recent annual meeting.

IRobin solo would amplify that opera’s essential medium is music. The simplest utterances – Violetta’s “Gioia,” The Count’s “Contessa perdono, ” Brunhilde’s “Hojotoho,” – pick your favorite. All gain their power in the way they are set and sung. Such moments flow together to build opera’s liquid architecture.

To grasp how music can dramatize words and heighten expression is central to education programs at San Francisco Opera Guild, and it was in abundant display at last week’s performance of The Adventures of Robin Hood, an original musical-dramatic work by 5th graders in our Book to Bravo! program.

Artists' Statements

Artists’ Statements from the 5th grade cast of Robin Hood graced the walls of the venue.

Life is short: eat dessert first.  The fun and excitement may well be icing on the cake, but here, more aptly, trimmings of a nutritious feast. In writing dialogue and lyrics, composing choruses and songs, performing and reflecting on the creative process, principles central to Common Core State Standards and, indeed, to all learning, are manifest.

At the performance, a parent commented that among the most memorable experiences from her own school years was her participation in theatre, and she was grateful her daughter was able to have this experience.  A program where students not only study a work of literature but create and perform their own interpretation is an active, collaborative way of building cognitive and life skills.  The effects endure, as relevant to today’s youth as they were to the merry men and women in the depths of legendary Sherwood Forest.

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A fitting celebration

Education is never out of fashion. Neither, it seems, is fashion ever out of education. Style-consciousness has spurred a continuing debate nationwide about dress codes, the advantages of uniforms, and the range of freedom of dress advisable for schools.

At any age, and at different times, we may dress to fit in or to stand out, to hide what makes us feel uncomfortable or to flaunt what we’ve got. Our dress is integral to our public persona.????????????

Last week, San Francisco Opera Guild co-presented an extraordinary fashion show with Saks Fifth Avenue to benefit our education programs, featuring the hot young designer Erdem. The intersection of opera and fashion is centuries old. Through history, opera performances have been dress-up occasions, with competition in audience attire often rivaling the drama on stage. And costumes, of course, form a critical part of characterization and the mise-en-scène of a production.

In our education programs it’s an exciting moment for students when they get their costumes. George Lucas, a veteran Guild director who has created costumes for our signature Opera à la Carte school programs for more than twenty years, remarked on the transformation students experience the minute they don a costume.

Many of the Erdem designs on view last week had a distinctly theatrical bent, incorporating bright colors, vivid patterns, and rich textures. But as George, with his long career as a tailor, pointed out, they work not only because they are inventive, but also exquisitely shaped to look natural on the body.

????????????A highlight of the evening was the appearance of three of our students, following the runway show, in costumes from Opera à la Carte productions. (I heard tell that backstage the Erdem models were coveting the outfits for themselves). As George explains, building costumes to be used interchangeably by hundreds of students has its own set of challenges. For our young performers, clothes make the man, the princess, the solider, and even occasionally the dragon. It’s one more avenue for them to find outward expression of their inner voices, in a context where being a little over the top is not only permitted, but encouraged.

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