“Where has The O Word gone, Kate?!” One of my friends said to me last night as we were watching an opera. It’s very difficult to keep up a blog when also trying to balance other aspects of my life! But in all seriousness, I’ve actually had many blog ideas bouncing through my mind for the last two months and anytime I sit down I just lose the ability to write it down from brain to keyboard.
But I do have something to say: Over the last few months, I have gained a passion for bridging the gap between young audiences and opera.
I want to deliver opera to primary schools and high schools and help people realise how fabulous this art form is. I live for that moment when you watch a kid’s eyes pop at the high note at the end of an aria and their shock when they hear opera for the first time live. Nothing beats live performance and real interaction when it comes to teenagers building an understanding and opinion on an art form. You can’t just play a recording of Renee Fleming singing Song to the Moon or even play Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Die Erlkonig and then ask the students: “Do you like it?” Of course they don’t! The reaction you’re likely to get is “that sucks”, “I don’t get it” or even “Opera’s for losers!”
Whilst on my four-week education prac, I ran warm-ups with the school choirs. I was really fortunate to end up at a gifted and talented music program so I had hundreds of children to educate who were hungry to learn and were eagerly there at 7:45 in the morning (As eager as you can be at 7:45…) On my final week of prac, I finished my warm-up session with approximately seventy 13/14 year old girls with a performance of Bizet’s Habanera from Carmen. The girls were completely surprised and in shock with the sound that was produced in this operatic performance. As one of the teachers asked “Does anyone have any questions for Miss Goyder?” the hands shot up into the air. These girls were genuinely interested in how and why I sang like this, and what would they have to do to do the same thing.
Flash forward to another choral warm-up, where I took approximately sixty (I’m guessing!) 15 year olds, both boys and girls. I taught them a rhythmic ostinato, and then added in different parts for a round/canon. We changed the volumes, adapted sounds and I all of a sudden had this entire group of year 10s singing this very familiar piece back to me. I asked them what kind of piece this was and they shrugged their shoulders. Little did they know, I had just taught them the end of Act 1 of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. Whilst I don’t think it was a complete mind-blowing moment for them like I hoped it might be, when I brought it back the week after every student still remembered it, ostinato and all and they were laughing and having fun. These 15 year olds were singing opera and having fun! After finishing rehearsal, one of the voice students came up to me and said “If that’s opera… How come it’s in English?” and after explaining to her that opera can be in any language, she thought for a few seconds and said “It’s not as snooty as what I thought it was…. Cool!” and walked off.
(Yes, I taught 15 year olds this atonal piece of Britten opera…)
AT ANOTHER REHEARSAL, I got the opportunity (opera-tunity) to talk to the upper school kids. I performed the Habanera again and told them that after school, I would be happy to answer any questions about the genre of opera and what it’s like studying classical singing… Surprisingly, I was still outside the music office 30/40 minutes after the final bell, answering the questions of 15/16/17 year olds, who had decided to miss their bus and have a chat and talk about opera. They were genuinely interested in pursuing this art form, and wanted to know how I’d gone from playing trombone at the back of the orchestra to singing. As I stood there talking to these teenagers, I just found myself having flashbacks to when I was in their shoes five years ago. I had been lucky enough to chat through some things with a few opera singers and my singing teacher, who led me in the right direction. I look back and am incredibly grateful for these people… At that pointy end of high school, you just need someone you can ask questions to and answer those thoughts that are pinging around your head.
You can’t just play a classical voice recording and ask “Do you like it?” in the same way you might do with your favourite song to a friend. If we wish to get people involved in opera – we have to go to them, perform for them and give them an opportunity to ask the questions that they wish to learn about. Opera is a foreign and strange genre to try and immerse young teenagers in. Therefore, playing a recording of “some foreign singer” performing it is only going to strengthen that concept further. (I know the Erlking is amazing – they don’t!) Instead, get young performers out to the masses and give opera a local and youthful voice. Bring it home and give the students a chance to see that they can do it too! Teach them Peter Grimes or a Verdi chorus and involve them in something that makes them see it is NOT some high, faloot-y, “dying” art form: It’s just music!
I know that there are more important things to be dealing with in music education. I was lucky to go to a school where kids can play an instrument and read music, gaining the chances to perform and realise their potential, an opportunity thousands/millions of students in this country are missing out on. But we need to be teaching kids to pursue work that they are passionate about. I am passionate about opera. It is what I love and even if teenagers walk away from my lessons on opera, humming the tunes but saying, “It’s not my thing, but Miss Goyder’s passion for opera is kind of how I feel about ________.”, then we’re still achieving a sense of discovery and still helping that student in the pursuit of life after school.
Opera is by no means a top priority in the eyes of a teenager, or even a music teacher who is desperately trying to teach the length of a dotted minim. But it can be so very beneficial to a young audience as it’s emotional and powerful, and whilst many of us might not be dealing with the diseases these characters suffer/die from, anyone can empathise with heartbreak and frustration or laugh at the ridiculousness of plot lines. It’ll strengthen your creativity, set your imagination alight… and hey! Classical music makes you smarter! So what are you waiting for? Go to the opera – ask questions, be brave and try something new.
If you are someone who has questions about opera… Feel free to email us today at firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Katherine Goyder