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From Murder to Disco: An Opera Inquiry

Susan Notes:

This may be the best story about teaching and learning you will ever read.

I don't want to spoil it with a lot of ranting about the professional development outrage being pumped into schools by Common Core zealots, but I'll just ask one question: How would Allen's lesson rate on a Charlotte Danielson rubric?

To be rated highly effective, the teacher must satisfy this condition:
The evidence indicates that instructional content is consistently aligned with local and adopted State Standards. The teacher has developed an organizational planning tool to ensure that all instructional goals of the grade level/content area show mastery. Priorities are based on mastery data results by unit as evidenced by pre and post -test results or criterion-referenced tests.

There is no provision for the moment when a student asks,"What is opera?"

Allen Koshewa, the author of Discipline and Democracy: Teachers on Trial, is a longtime teacher. Can you tell?

by Allen Koshewa

I frequently turn to the piano in my classroom to feed my lifelong habit of connecting practically everything to music. One day, something a student said reminded me of the "Habanera" from the opera Carmen, and I dashed to the piano to play my fifth graders an excerpt. That led to the question that propelled an inquiry into opera --an inquiry that took on a life of its own
My student, Jasmin González, explained, in our class newspaper, how it all started:

One afternoon, in our classroom, a kid from our class asked, "What is opera?" Then Dr. Koshewa told us that it is a play in which the actors are singing. We wanted to know more . . .

Of course, after reading the headline, most of the students excitedly spread the news that Oprah was coming to Davis. As it turned out, opera turned out to be at least as exciting as a visit from Oprah.

After the propitious question about opera, I quickly found a synopsis of Lucia di Lammermoor on the Internet. Students were glued to the screen as I projected, read, and acted out the story; even students in an early phase of English acquisition leaned forward, trying to figure out the story that was fueling all this excitement: the tragic loss of Lucia's parents and the family fortune, her brother's attempt to marry her off to a wealthy landowner, Lucia's love at first sight when a handsome young man rescues her from a charging wild bull, and Lucia's grisly murder of her bridegroom after she discovers she was tricked into marrying the wealthy landowner. At the end of the story, the children were clamoring to hear the "mad scene" from the opera. (Ahhh, YouTube!) After seeing Joan Sutherland descending into madness, frightening her wedding guests in her blood-spattered dress, they were not disappointed. Indeed, they wanted more.

Within the next hour we had watched the mechanical doll scene from Tales of Hoffman, a moving version of the love duet from Madama Butterfly, a stunning staging of the "Queen of the Night" aria from The Magic Flute, and several other classic opera moments. But for the ten- and eleven-year-olds in the room, the pièce de resistance was a version of the "Queen of the Night" aria sung by boy soprano Robin Schlotz, which we stumbled across at the end of the day. After the last note, the roughest toughest boy in my class yelled out, "Now that's talent!"

The kids were hooked. A few minutes later, on their way to the buses to go home, not several, but every boy and girl in my class was trying out a falsetto voice, creating many new versions of Mozart's coloratura aria. Students from other classes laughed, or stared in puzzlement.

I knew the next step was live opera, but my heart sank as I thought about the new district policy banning all field trips -- yes, all field trips. The rationale? Field trips "weren't educational," weren't preparing kids for the holy standardized tests. Of course, the teachers rebelled and I was one of the most vocal rebels, having taken up to fifteen field trips a year during previous years. (Now, a couple of years later, we are begrudged two trips a year if we jump through a few hoops, with students having to raise money for the trip and buses themselves -- difficult in a high-poverty community like that of my school). The only alternative was to see if Portland Opera could come to us, so after my bus duty, I rushed to call the opera company.

That's how I discovered Portland Opera to Go (POGO). Alexis Hamilton, the education and outreach manager, told me that, for an almost negligible cost, four singers and a pianist could come to my classroom and perform an improvised opera. In the interim, POGO provided a curriculum booklet that not only helped the children learn about opera, but inspired them to write their own operas. A few examples of the plot and musical "outlines" with which they began:

Natividad's outline
Opera Title: Love Forever

Beginning: A Mexican woman falls in love with an American man.

Aria 1: I love you
Aria 2: Forever love

Middle: The Mexican girlâs dad finds out about the girl and the boy.

Aria 1: I am mad
Aria 2: I am supposed to love whoever I want

End: The dad kills the boy, the girl kills the dad, and the girl kills herself.
Finale: (sung by the girl): I am alone.

Miriam and Cynthiaâs outline
Opera Title: Drunk Driving

Beginning: A man named Robert is drunk and going to the prom. He runs over a girl.

Aria 1: Tragedy
Aria 2: Why?

Middle: When the police arrive, they see the girl is still alive.

Aria 1: A miracle
Aria 2: How?

End: The girl forgives Robert and they head off to the prom to dance to some disco music.

Duet: Forgiving
Finale: Letâs dance!

Eric's outline:
Opera Title: Hiding from the Cops

Beginning: Man decides to steal a big purse.

Aria 1: Thatâs the biggest purse Iâve ever seen
Aria 2: Iâm being chased by cops

Middle: The man gets into the purse to hide from the cops.

Aria 1: I can't believe Iâm inside the biggest purse I've ever seen
Aria 2: I sneezed and blew my cover

End: The man gets on a train and is surrounded by undercover cops.

Aria : Iâm busted
Finale: (chorus) He's in jail!

Opera outlines other students wrote had varied themes and moods: Some were adventurous; others were poignant, joyous, and wildly fantastic.

The day of the improvised opera was filled with anticipation. When the singers arrived, they asked if the 90+ fifth graders crowded into my classroom wanted a comedy or a drama. When a vote engendered a 50/50 split, a student was asked to flip a coin. Comedy it was.
Students were offered a menu of character types to accompany each voice: soprano, mezzo soprano, tenor and baritone. After hearing a few plot suggestions from the kids and a five-minute huddle, this team created a hilarious opera that included a troubadour, a witch, and a fairy godfather. Spells were cast, and one spell prompted a "chicken aria," with very musical clucking. These brilliant artists invented recitative lyrics on the spot, while incorporating well-known arias, duets and quartets into the opera as well. My classroom was alive with laughter and joy for an entire hour.

Since then, POGO has presented one-hour versions of two well-known operas to our entire school, thanks to their ongoing collaboration with schools in Oregon. The student response has been universally appreciative. After POGO's Elixir of Love performance, one student had two "burning questions": "Was that elixir wine or water?" and "Was that kiss real or fake?" Another had a comment that says it all: "This is a day I will never forget."

For me, this opera inquiry and the learning it spurred epitomize what I believe is the foundation of good teaching: Listen to students, follow up on their questions and interests, and create dispositions and experiences for further learning.

POGO's website

Some recommended YouTube links:
Joan Sutherland in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (1986)

stage version of Queen of the Night Aria from Mozart's Magic Flute

boy soprano Robin Schlotz singing < href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9ijwfRTv0o"> Queen of the Night Aria from Mozart's

love duet from Puccini's Madama Butterfly

the doll's song from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman

excerpts from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess
Nessun Dorma from Puccini's Turandot

Jessye Norman singing Habanera from Bizet's Carmen

— Allen Koshewa


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