Sing to live; sing to learn

Swans sing before they die — ‘t were no bad thing
Should certain persons die before they sing.

I take issue here with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Singing is a birthright, and it would be tragic to stifle this basic human impulse for fear of harsh judgment.


A fifth-grade Tamino in San Francisco Opera Guild’s Opera Junior.

Coleridge, of course, refers to those who sing for the wider public, and not everyone is so equipped. As the Jerry character says in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love: “In life I have a terrible voice, but when I’m soaping myself under hot water, I sound just like Eartha Kitt.”

But singing is not just an art – it is a fundamental way of communicating. While we may enjoy singing in the shower or as we go about day to day business, it is also a way of sharing experiences that transcends mere words. And consider the multitude of ways we use songs, the myriad situations, the variety of types of singing across every culture.

Fifth-graders sing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in San Francisco Opera Guild’s Book to Bravo! program.

While the benefits for young children are well known, less familiar are outcomes singing produces throughout education. A recent New York Times article featured the accomplishments of the VOICE charter school, a K-7 school in New York City where singing is a focus of the curriculum and where students significantly outperform peers at comparable schools.

In our annual Summer Conservatory, San Francisco Opera Guild provides a unique opportunity for young people to explore their vocal abilities at many levels. In a varied, experiential program, young people ages 10 to 18 come with a range of prior experience to learn together, rehearse, and mount a fully-staged opera. While not all go on to further study, they experience the special bond and sense of communal accomplishment that singing together can create. These are profound rewards that many who sing in choirs, in religious congregations, with family, or around campfires feel, and one that is available all around us.

Applications are currently being accepted for Summer Conservatory 2015 this July and can be found here.

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Labors of Love

To see a challenge, say “I have to do something about this,” and act purely from one’s convictions; to volunteer is a gift to others as well as to oneself. As Albert Schweitzer put it,

Students 1949

Mezzo-soprano Gladys Swarthout with members of a Student Matinée audience, 1949

Wherever you turn, you can find someone who needs you. Even if it is a little thing, do something for which there is no pay but the privilege of doing it.

In 1939, Virginia Miller was a ninth-grader when she attended San Francisco Opera Guild’s very first Student Matinée. She later went on to run backstage tours, organize annual rummage sales, and eventually serve on the Guild’s Board of Directors. Clare Skall was also a devoted Director, active for nearly 50 years. Until their recent passing, both made substantial contributions to opera and especially to the lives of the young people served by the Guild’s education programs. We will miss them.

Students at San Francisco Opera Guild’s 100th Student Matinée, 1973

Jane Hartley, a devoted Director who continues to provide tireless service, recalls,

The most impressive thing about Virginia was that she was serious and committed to anything she took on, would keep the job for years, and appear week after week. She made you feel your volunteerism was important. She epitomized the faithful volunteer.

Volunteerism is so central to the opera world that in the early 1970’s, Opera Guilds International was formed. Now known as Opera Volunteers International, the organization provides a forum for opera volunteers from around the globe.

Students at a San Francisco Opera Guild Student Dress Rehearsal, 2014

Students at a San Francisco Opera Guild Student Dress Rehearsal, 2014

While certainly motivated by their love of opera, these volunteers also touch and are touched by young people, as with Mary Muerle, now in her fourth decade as a docent in San Francisco Opera Guild’s East Bay Chapter school programs.

In a meeting recently about Voices for Social Justice, a Guild program where students explore social issues through creating original musical-dramatic works, the teacher suggested her class dramatize the story of Albeiro Vargas. As a nine-year old boy living in a shantytown of rural Colombia, Albeiro organized his friends to feed and care for abandoned elderly neighbors. His work is movingly depicted in the documentary Little Angel of Colombia. We look forward to how our students will interpret his story as a mini-opera.

From the arts to education to social justice, volunteers reaching hands across the generations makes for powerful transformations.

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Encircling the world

Wagner can get you up and dancing.


Young gods and goddesses cross the rainbow bridge to Valhalla.

As part of our 75th Anniversary celebration, San Francisco Opera Guild presented our Sing a Story program this past fall at libraries around the Bay Area. Included was Das Rheingold for juniors, which has parts for gods, goddesses, Rhine children (as we cast them in this egalitarian version), and giants. What could be more fun?

A response from a San Francisco librarian:

The community participation was magical. Patrons kept coming up to me to say how much they’d enjoyed it. The daughter of one of our regulars hadn’t wanted to attend, but as soon as she heard the music she was captivated and ended up taking on four or five different parts!

It’s hard to predict when and where transformational experiences may occur. In a recent workshop I attended, participants were asked to share such episodes from their lives. The wide range of ages from which these were drawn was fascinating. Mine include seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring just a few years ago.

Our educational system often asks students to narrow their interests early on. In college, liberal arts education has widely fallen victim to early specialization. Even high schools are becoming more career-oriented as a way of creating relevancy. A report last week on PBS profiled Oakland’s Life Academy, an innovative school which fosters skills for a career in health and biosciences. The focus and rigor has achieved notable success, but precludes offering sports or the arts. One student comments, “I used to love acting. But now that I know I want to be…somewhere in the medical field, I don’t miss it as much.” This sounded a sad note to me.

A close friend, a former professor of Psychology and Philosophy, asked me once if a school had to choose between a course in arts and literature or in psychology, which should it choose and why?

I’d argue that this is a false choice. Both are important and education should be able to accommodate a variety of modes of understanding. But arts and humanities, in particular, open up vistas of possibility, and may light the magic fire of innovation in any field. As Albert Einstein, who never travelled without his violin, said,

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.


Family members enjoy Sing a Story together at Mill Valley Public Library in Marin County



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A very good place to start

Early childhood education is trending.

Single parents or families with both parents in the workforce, the frustratingly stubborn achievement gap, competitive admissions even for kindergarten in some schools – all inspire calls for universal pre-K and academic rigor in the earliest years.

The evidence from research in education and brain development is clear, and efforts to institutionalize and professionalize early learning are increasing.

But as Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori famously said, “play is the child’s work.” How does the essential nature of childhood harmonize with the trend toward academic rigor for our youngest?

Sing a Story

Learning to Sing a Story with SF Opera Guild teaching artist Kristen Jones.

The answer, my friend, is blowing in a flute – a Magic Flute.

Music and the arts have always played a huge role in early learning and there is a growing body of literature recognizing their contribution toward the development of literacy, focus, discipline, and other skills. The literature also stresses the impact of learning that is active and multi-modal.

Research supports common sense as to the critical role of parents’ attitudes and involvement with the education of their children. How many recall the tremendous impact of our parents reading to us? My own childhood memories are replete with my mom singing and periodically plopping me down by the phonograph for Tubby the Tuba, Burl Ives’s Ark, and Broadway musicals (TV was reserved for early weekend mornings and special programs.)

Trial of Fire

Sing a Story students enact the trial of fire from Mozart’s The Magic Flute

But research also indicates that quality professional pre-school and kindergarten can and do make a significant difference for success in higher grades.

At San Francisco Opera Guild, our team of teaching artists is about to embark on their annual pilgrimage around the Bay Area with Sing a Story, an opera-based program that reaches more than 300 K-3 classrooms each year. Teachers continue to comment on its relevance to best practices and educational goals – and the enthusiastic response from students. Our artists find retention of material remarkable as they revisit students each year.

Sing a Story may well cultivate a positive attitude toward opera. But more importantly, young minds engage in a process that fosters creativity, expression, and literacy.

Our success in grades as early as kindergarten, and the growth of formal pre-school opportunities, suggests adapting such programs to even younger learners.

De-excelsior! Onward and downward!

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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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