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THE ARTS EDUCATION PROGRAM
"Creating Original Opera" is an arts education, project-based-learning program founded by the Metropolitan Opera Guild. Its objective is for everyday kids to form an opera company, and create and perform their own musical production. The kids themselves are the writers, composers, set designers, carpenters, electricians, costume and make-up designers, public relations directors, performers, and production managers. In taking part in a collaborative and creative process — in making something from nothing together — students are afforded the opportunity to think, work, and achieve both independently and interdependently, and to discover their own personal and collective potential.
"Creating Original Opera" was initially designed as an in-school project, specifically as part of a fifth or sixth grade curriculum. It has been successfully implemented in and outside the school day, in public, private, and charter schools, in urban, suburban, and rural districts, and with students of nearly all ages, from first grade through college. It has also been adapted for adults, most notably in senior living facilities and detention centers. As evident by these diverse manifestations, "Creating Original Opera" is flexible, and can be accomplished anywhere and on any scale. And as many advocates of the program have attested, the fewer funds and resources available, the better — as limitations often inspire even greater levels of inventiveness and creativity.
Does it have to be an Opera? No. But it just so happens that Operas and Musicals are complex and emotionally resonant genres, that require a dynamic and interconnected creative process, from the page to the stage.
The initial idea for "Creating Original Opera" was hatched in 1976 by JoAnn Forman and Bruce Taylor at the Seattle Opera Education Department. It started with a question: How can an art form like opera be more accessible to kids? The strategy of most Opera Education Departments was to invite school children to attend matinee performances of opera classics like "Carmen" or "The Marriage of Figaro," and yet most youngsters seemed bored and uninterested in something so long, foreign and seemingly out of reach.
What if we gave kids the chance to make their own opera? — asked Bruce Taylor. Instead of passively introducing them to opera, make it active. Instead of someone else's creation, make it theirs. Maybe a more personal introduction to opera would allow for a greater understanding and interest in the art form?
What JoAnn Forman and Bruce Taylor envisioned and executed, it turned out, was not only an ambitious and effective way to introduce kids to opera, but a groundbreaking arts education program rooted in "project-based-learning" well before the term was popularized.
The two arts education pioneers took their idea to New York and The Metropolitan Opera Guild, where it was officially developed into "Creating Original Opera" in 1979, and implemented in a handful of New York City public schools. The New York Times article Harlem Students Create and Perform an Opera (1983) and documentary film Young Wonders, Incorporated (1985) illustrate the program's early success and exposure.
As more and more teachers, principals, and school administrators of elementary, junior high, and high schools became interested in incorporating "Creating Original Opera" into their school curriculums, The Metropolitan Opera Guild generated a larger team of Teacher Trainers, who ventured not just to New York City schools, but to classrooms throughout the nation to teach teachers how to oversee and guide their students in the process of creating original operas. Annual summertime workshops were also held at college campuses throughout the country in an effort to train as many teachers as possible. An archive of Local News Articles from 1990 to 2005 demonstrates the rising interest and exponential growth of "Creating Original Opera" throughout many of the country's fifty states.
Eventually, "Creating Original Opera" blossomed oversees, especially in England through the Royal Opera House, and in Spain where "Creating Original Opera" champions Mary Ruth McGinn and Pedro Sarmiento adapted it into a program called LÓVA — La Ópera, un Vehículo de Aprendizaje, which translates to "Opera, a Vehicle for Learning."
As of 2021, LÓVA is thriving in Spain, where more than 100 student operas are created each year. In the United States, however, where "Creating Original Opera" was founded and once flourished, a diminishing number of schools still participate in the program.
There are several suspected reasons for the near disappearance of "Creating Original Opera" in the United States. Above all, its downfall is attributed to shifting priorities in American Education. Where once there was time in the school day for a longterm, grade-wide project like "Creating Original Opera," "No Child Left Behind" and national and state-level testing became the principal priority of schools, administrators, and teachers. And since programs like "Creating Original Opera" and courses like Music, Theater, Dance, and Visual Art were not tested on these federally mandated exams, Arts classes suffered cutbacks in most school curriculums.
The value and impact of the Arts generally and "Creating Original Opera" specifically are hard to measure and quantify. Studies, articles, and films, some of which can be found on the Archives & Resources page of this website, attempt to demonstrate the profound and often life-changing effects the Arts can have on children. "Creating Original Opera" posits that the Arts are just as important as Core Subjects in crafting and educating inquisitive, imaginative, compassionate, collegial, and confident citizens of the world — to name just a few of the many skills and qualities the Arts can cultivate in children.
Process & Product
PROCESS & PRODUCT
“Creating Original Opera” is designed to be an integral part of a school’s curriculum, in which an entire class or grade participates. The program is more than a performance, but a large and long-term cooperative project that all members of a class can contribute to and learn from. “Creating Original Opera” can also be done extracurricularly, though the creators of the program intended for student opera companies to feel like real-life samples of society, filled with a wide and diverse range of personalities, skills and interests.
Once a student opera company is formed, it begins to meet as an entire group, usually in the first few weeks of the school year. Students learn about the upcoming journey they’re about to embark on and about opera as an art form. They are led through a collection of trust and bonding exercises, in addition to company-wide discussions, during which they brainstorm a possible theme for their opera. A theme is a topic that an opera company narrows in on, and that has particular meaning or resonance with that specific group, like “Jealousy,” “Pressure,” or “Fear of Loss.” Students also determine a fun and fitting name for their opera company, like “The Opera-Tunists,” for instance. Already in these early stages of the process, students are largely in control of their own opera.
Next, opera company members choose three jobs to apply for, with the notion they will end up with one. An opera company is comprised of Writers, Composers, Set Designers, Carpenters, Electricians, Costume and Makeup Designers, Public Relations Directors, Historians, Performers, Stage Mangers, and a Production Manager. The job application process usually entails a written dimension done for homework, as well as an in-person interview with one of the adult facilitators. These two components together are meant to give teachers a good sense not only of which job a student might want the most, but which job a student is most fit for. In this program, it is not always the child with the best voice that gets the solo, or the best artist that gets to design the set. It is part of the program's mission not just to highlight students' natural abilities, but to give students chances to grow and stretch beyond what they initially believe they're capable of.
Most children are excited to be in a student opera company, and if they're not initially, that excitement nearly always comes with time. Similarly, most students are thrilled to receive one of the three jobs they applied for. After all, it was one of their choices! However, it is natural and common for students to be disappointed when receiving their second or third choice. Life lessons, like learning to cope with disappointment, are purposefully part of "Creating Original Opera." Nearly always, a student who really wanted to be a Performer and instead becomes a Writer, for instance, learns to love his or her job, understands that there can be no performers or performance without his or her ideas and words on the page, and maybe most important of all, realizes that he or she is capable and mature enough to overcome obstacles.
Once each student in an opera company is assigned a job, each job or sub-group begins to meet separately. While the process really begins and initially relies upon the Writers, there is a lot the other jobs can do to start preparing for their part of the production. (Composers, for instance, can begin learning about music, melody, and rhythm, and try their hand at whatever instruments are available, like piano, xylophone, drum, recorder, etc.) The Writers start by using the theme the entire opera company arrived on, and base a three-act script around that major idea, layered with characters, plot, sub-plot, conflict, resolution, lines and lyrics. The Composers take the Writers' lyrics, one song at a time, and compose a melody and instrumentation for each. The Set Designers and Carpenters design a set or sets for the various scenes and acts. Electricians make lights, Costume and Makeup Designers costumes, each designing the color, look, and mood for the various scenes and characters. Performers learn their lines and lyrics and develop their characters. Historians and Public Relations Directors document the process, create a logo, and begin to publicize it for television, print, podcast, web, and social media. And the Stage Managers and Production Manager create stage props and blocking, and help adult facilitators orchestrate and problem-solve the entire schedule and process, before ultimately taking full control and responsibility of the whole production in the weeks and days leading up to opening night.
Below is a breakdown of all jobs and specific responsibilities:
Writers: Develop characters, conflicts, scenario, the placement of the musical moments, a narrative, lyrics, and dialogue.
Set Designers: Develop ideas for a set; create a two-dimensional sketch or drawing of the set design; learn about color, shape, texture, scale, and stagecraft terminology.
Carpenters: Construct two and three-dimensional scale models; use tools to build flats; paint scenery; work on scene changes; move scenery during the performance.
Composers: Generate musical materials in concert with writers; become familiar with the basic elements of music; develop musical moments to be sung by an ensemble, or as a solo or duet; orchestrate the musical moments with available instruments.
Electricians: Learn about the components of electricity; find the circuit or breaker panel for the performance space; construct footlights using tin cans, electrical wire, light-bulb receptacle bases, and wood; construct a dimmer and dimmer board; design color and mood of lighting; decide on placement of lighting equipment; practice lighting cues; execute lighting cues during performance following stage manager’s instructions.
Costume and Makeup Designers: Design and coordinate all costume and make-up components, largely by borrowing or making from scratch; make use of clothing and other materials to reflect and enhance specific qualities of characters; learn that make-up emphasizes the eyes, cheeks, mouth, nose, and hair, thereby helping to tell the story.
Public Relations: Communicate information about the opera through various media platforms, such as posters and flyers, print and press releases, television, digital, and social; design a logo that reflects the company; use oral communication skills and etiquette when dealing with the public and publicity through email, phone and in-person contact.
Historians/Documentation Team: Increase awareness of the process and its importance and archive it accordingly; learn the basics of exhibit design and layout; learn how to conduct and capture a successful interview; learn the fundamentals of photography and editing, both still and video.
Performers: Understand the character he or she is portraying; work as part of an ensemble; stay in character dramatically and musically throughout the performance; convey emotion and relay the story to the audience.
Stage Manager: Maintains call-board; supervises peers and performers; manages rehearsals; notates blocking; calls performance and lighting cues.
Assistant Stage Manager: Creates or obtains props for the production; maintains a prompt book; ensures the stage area is clean, and that all props are pre-set correctly for rehearsals and performances.
Production Manager: Acts as liaison between the opera company and the school faculty and staff; locates and maintains resources; is familiar with and works with all members of the production staff, students and adults alike; supervises the entire production; introduces the production on opening night.
As is evident by these jobs and job descriptions, students make use of knowledge and concepts from the traditional core curriculum in this arts-based project, and furthermore, "Creating Original Opera" reinforces both educational skills and personal ideals in an engaging, real-world setting. Examples of such critical academic and human 21st century skills include: Critical reading, creative and fiction writing, formal and non-fiction writing, analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, deductive reasoning, vocabulary, oral communication, communicating ideas verbally, enunciation, articulation, diction, communicating ideas visually, rhythm, sound, non-verbal expression, research skills, note taking, memorization, mathematics like ratios, proportions, graphing, geometry, addition, subtraction, positive and negative numbers, scale, decimals, budgeting and money management, reflected and refracted light, computer skills, decision making (individual and group), focus and concentration, reading and following directions, respect for rules and regulations, responsibility, compromise, respect for individual differences, developing an idea, carrying out a complex sequence of steps, turning something abstract into something concrete, cause and effect, editing, enhancing, problem-solving, motor skills, working independently, working cooperatively, appropriate judgment, time management, diplomacy, coping with stress, self-esteem, patience, perseverance, and work-ethic.
Throughout the process, teachers are to act as facilitators. They are to guide and support the children in the making of their own opera. And as the process unfolds, teachers should aim to place more and more responsibility in the hands of the students, so by opening night, teachers are no longer actively involved in the opera company, and instead are simply audience members — no different from anyone else watching the show. It is a difficult, but possible role to play in this process. But if achieved, it is incredibly rewarding for students to see that they are capable of achieving seismic things on their own, and just as rewarding for teachers to see that they've given their students the skills and confidence needed to mount their own production all by themselves.
The particulars of both the process and the product depend entirely on the specific school and opera company. Operas have been created in as little as two or three months, though often this artistic and educational process is most fruitful and gratifying when it spans an entire semester or school year. The final work is usually between 30 and 60 minutes long, partially sung and partially spoken. It's encouraged that students be given the chance to perform their work at least twice, once for their younger and/or older peers, and once for their parents and larger community. Multiple performances not only give the opera company a greater shot at success, but an opportunity to keep learning, improving, and raising their own standards. Student operas have been produced and performed in classrooms, gymnasiums, playgrounds, auditoriums and theaters, so this program can truly be accomplished anywhere and on any scale.
The common denominator among the hundreds of original operas that have been created and performed throughout the globe is this: Opening night (or day!) is the moment students see the fruits of their labor, and realize that what started out as a blank piece of paper has become a three-dimensional, three-act work with dialogue, music, scenery, costumes, make-up, lighting, props, and programs — all presented by the students themselves! Sharing their own creation will leave them with a feeling of pride and accomplishment they are likely to remember and build upon for the rest of their lives.
The original Teacher Training Guide, conceptualized and written by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, is linked here and found on the Archives & Resources page as well.
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