“Who wants to learn about opera? It has everything from love to violent deaths!”
So begins the opera unit in seventh grade music class, taught by myself and Tricia Nevarez. Of the four units we cover during the semester-long class, this unit requires great enthusiasm and creativity to keep our students engaged—and hopefully interested in seeing an opera in the future.
After becoming familiar with terminology and all the voice classifications—soprano, mezzo, tenor, and bass—we -watch an opera with subtitles: La Traviata. Franco Zeffirelli’s movie version is filmed outside of Paris with a young Placido Domingo playing Alfredo and also a young Teresa Stratas as Violetto. (We all looked younger in 1980!)
How can one not love opera after viewing the struggles of poor Violetta trying to find true love with Alfredo, and giving up her courtesan position with the boring Baron!
“What’s a courtesan?” we are asked. Our inquisitive students have lots of questions about this position.
“Well, we will call her a paid companion; a pretty girl who spends her time at parties; a girl who society would not allow to marry a noble man but she’s ok for a date!”
After watching the movie with lots of arias and recitatives, it’s time for the opera project. For the next four classes, following a rubric, six student teams research an opera and the composer, creating a slideshow presentation for the class. This is a great way for the students to teach the rest of the class and become familiar with the greats: Carmen, Rigoletto, Porgy and Bess, Madame Butterfly, The Elixir of Love, and Magic Flute. This year’s oral presentations were confidently presented after much research, and some even included clever quiz questions for the class.
For our final activity, instead of a written test, we held Opera Jeopardy—just like on TV with categories that included love, mistakes, composers, and famous places. Sitting in groups with at least three operas represented, we kept score and then held the final Jeopardy question: listening to an opera excerpt where students had to identify the voice type and also the mood expressed by the music. High energy with many correct answers! Good times!!
I wasn’t terribly surprised when asking my students if they would now attend an opera, and many responded with thumbs down. Did I tell you they are seventh graders? But, when I asked them to give me some headlines for this article, they had plenty of suggestions: Don’t Kill With A Cotton Hook! Love or Fame! Don’t Join the Military For Money! Don’t Let a Drug Dealer Steal Your Girl! Don’t Commit Suicide Over a Man!
Given these creative titles, I can confidently write that these students have gained some opera knowledge. It probably isn’t cool to admit that they might want to attend an opera. Perhaps a relative (hint hint) might like to take the plunge with them!
Joann The Taylor