It will not be a surprise to anyone reading this blog, that I am a massive advocate and supporter of the operatic art form. (I’m not hearing many people gasping in shock!) That is one of the reasons I began The O Word in the first place: To write blogs that ooze with passion and enthuse our audience (you!) to head to an opera and give it a chance.
Having just begun my career as a primary school music teacher, I am constantly breaking down ideas on how to make music more accessible and approachable for my students. Despite working on all sorts of repertoire and styles, I find myself constantly referring back to this wonderful art form of opera. How can we make opera accessible and approachable and how can we keep it alive? More importantly, why should we teach opera in the 21st Century?
Opera is an art form unlike any other. It has the ability to transport you to another realm, connecting you to stories of tragedy, comedy and consequence. Whilst watching an opera, students are being exposed to a well-rounded music education. As well as learning about the operatic genre, students are being taught about all members and sections of the orchestra, all voice types, the creative team involved in theatre, musical expression, concert etiquette and how music works in story telling. But the benefits go past music education! By watching an opera, students are being engaged in history, their literacy is being enhanced and their vocabulary developed. They’re learning foreign languages, discovering foreign fables and developing cultural awareness. Opera enhances their creative and critical thinking and on top of everything, opera provides young students with a chance to discover empathy and develop their emotional education. If exposed to opera, students are not being showed music written for “the rich and elitist”: They’re discovering a historical art form that, like all music, provides them with an opportunity to explore their own self and the external world in a safe space.
So how can we make this opera more accessible for our audiences?
Whilst the positive impact of opera is endless, it relies on an education and understanding by the teacher. My belief is that opera lessons are often taught hesitantly; with the teacher not understanding the subject or the opera they’ve chosen. This hesitance and confusion to the subject is then echoed in the students understanding of the art form – This leads to their frustration and confusion by the art form. Just like any subject, opera has to start from what the students know. For many, an understanding of opera comes from the cartoons that have famously parodied scenes (think Looney Tunes, The Simpsons, the opening to Mrs Doubtfire) and pasta/car ads.
I often find myself saying that opera certainly doesn’t follow the “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” rule and a bit of exploration can make the difference between a good first impression and a bad. Opera, like movies and theatre, is categorised into genres and eras. Some operas are romantic dramas (La Boheme), several operas are romantic comedies (Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro) and other operas are written in Disney-esque format, designed for children to enjoy (such as Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Gretel). Within these genres, are also the eras of music (which are studied in high school!) and those eras of music are going to affect the sounds and experiences of your operatic experience. To simplify, watching a Baroque Monteverdi opera could be compared with watching an old film from the pre-1950s starring Cary Grant: Timeless, but not everybody’s cup of tea! A 20th Century Opera might be similar to exposing your children to A Clockwork Orange – A cinematic masterpiece, but confusing and not necessarily appropriate for younger audiences!
I think perhaps the best way to introduce young members to opera is through “the best bits”. Rather than telling a teacher they must explain one entire opera that they might not understand (I still read The Magic Flute plot line and find myself getting confused), give them excerpts that the students and the teacher can then unpack together, beginning to understand the different sounds of all these different eras and genres. Students can perform opera without even knowing it is opera! (I taught a year 10 class Peter Grimes through Old Joe Has Gone Fishing, whilst also providing them with an opportunity to learn and practice 7/4). A teacher could use a song story to create and compose an opera with the students, using the instruments that lie around the classroom. The wonderful thing about approaching opera is there are no boundaries to how it can be done. When in doubt, you can’t go wrong by introducing live opera into your classroom. All over your town and city, no matter where you are, is some unknown opera talent (or well-known!) who is passionate to share their passion and experience of opera, and who will brighten your students’ day. This operatic experience could then be enhanced even more with an incursion from your local opera company, or an excursion to your children’s very first opera. (Many opera companies have very good resources on their websites that can be used to help students with this – Victorian Opera have a fabulous bunch of resources on their website!) The opportunity to explore, understand and connect to this art form is limitless.
From these experiences, our children learn so much about music and about the world. Whilst most might never see an opera again, they will certainly never forget the opera-tunity that they received during school. Whilst I certainly don’t expect opera to become the next popular thing, I believe that through a teacher’s knowledge, energy and enthusiasm, students may begin to understand and respect opera for the product that it is: Wonderful, truthful, emotional story-telling that has touched hearts and lives for the last 450 years.
I think that’s something worth teaching, don’t you?
Written by Katherine Goyder