Heading to the opera with your class? Having trouble motivating reluctant students? Are you yourself apprehensive about opera? Have no fear; this won’t hurt a bit. Though this art form is quite old (over 400 years and counting) and may seem a bit daunting, at its heart opera is a fun, exciting device for storytelling. Like novels, theater, and film, opera has very few rules and is designed to appeal to anyone and everyone. Opera also makes use of grand spectacle through elaborate set, costume, and lighting designs—all of which are a plus when enjoying a night out at the theater.
Here are a few things to think about before, during, and after the big event.
There’s an “Op” for that
Before you and your class set foot in the theater, here’s a little secret that can help cure any case of operatic cold feet: Opera is really all about…life. Yup, it’s that simple. While opera may seem overly grand or dramatic, at the end of the day it’s really just about being human. Even those crazy mythical operas with the Viking hats and spears can be boiled down to recognizable human experiences. Got dumped by your girlfriend? There’s an opera for that. Mad at your parents? There’s an opera for that. Feel betrayed by a friend? There’s an opera for that, too.
Ask your students
What kinds of stories appeal to them most? Which types of characters do they relate to best? Why?
Give students a synopsis of the opera you’re about to see. Have them create a mock Facebook page for one of the characters complete with “posts” on specific plot points.
Get to know operatic lingo
Here’s some standard operatic vocabulary to go over with students before the show:
A musical work, usually in two to four acts, that tells a story with the help of singers and an orchestra. An opera is fully staged with costumes, sets, lighting, and choreography.
The words or “lyrics” of an opera; the “play” behind the music.
Italian for “air,” an aria is a musical solo given to a character allowing him or her to express a range of emotions. An aria is like a stand-alone “song.”
- duet, trio, etc.
When two or more characters get together, they often blend their voices in a musical ensemble. These ensembles are known as duets, trios, quartets, etc., depending on the number of singers.
A form of musical dialogue in which operatic characters sing through their lines in little excerpts that never quite settle into a specific melody. Recitative is designed to move the action along and is often fast-paced.
Extra Credit: Watch out for variations on a theme
Opera often uses “theme songs” (tunes without words) to indicate a specific character, object, or idea. Known as leitmotifs (LEIT-moh-teef), these appear several times but are often very subtle. Ask students to listen closely and see if there are recurring musical themes. Who or what do they represent?
Look and Listen
Lots of people are involved in the dazzling productions known as operas. Many of the key players are people you can’t even see. Here’s a small list of some operatic VIPs, followed by a few questions for you and your students to keep in mind when the lights go down:
The “actors” conveying the story through song.
Does the music help these performers express their feelings? How? Do the students like some voices better than others? Why?
The person behind the music. He or she has written every note being sung and played.
What tunes, if any, do the students recognize? Where have they heard them before? Do the students feel the composer’s music still seems “alive” even though the composer might be dead? How?
The guy or gal with the baton who keeps the singers and instrumentalists in time and helps shape the musical performance.
Do the students notice the conductor once the show begins? Why do they think the conductor is often called maestro, (pronounced MI-stroh), Italian for “master”?
The people playing the instruments in the pit at the edge of the stage. Without them, operas would be incredibly short on emotion and atmosphere.
How does the orchestra work with the singers and the conductor? Are there moments when the orchestra is playing particularly loud or soft? Are there times when the orchestral music evokes a specific feeling?
The person who ties all the art forms of opera (music, acting, singing, props, lighting, etc.) together and more or less controls the whole show.
Do the students feel that all of the elements of the show blend together well? Are any parts of the production distracting? Why or why not?
The various people responsible for the “look” of the opera. They help realize the story visually through sets, costumes, and lighting.
How does the opera look? Do certain colors, textures, or lighting choices stick out? Do these visual aspects help or hinder the story being told? How?
And After the Opera
Have students choose their favorite character from the opera and select a pop song that applies to him or her. What aspects of the song reflect the character’s personality? Is there an aria from the opera that is comparable to the song they chose?
Some thoughts for discussion topics after the final bows.
The rock band Cake says of opera singers that they “sing what can’t be said.” Did the singing heighten the action? Would the opera have been just as effective if it were a play?
In what time period was the opera set? Is the plot applicable to modern times? Does the story remind students of events in the news?
What kind of story did the opera present? Did the opera have a definitive hero or heroine? Were the main characters outcasts or pillars of their community?
We’ve all met them. Opera cynics: people who are skeptical about giving opera a chance. Perhaps even you, the teacher, are just a bit weary of this centuries-old art. So, need to know how to respond to skeptics while cultivating a love for opera? Here are a few typical statements that may arise in the classroom (or from within), and some thoughts on quieting these operatic anxieties:
“I just don’t like opera.”
A fun way to respond to this is by asking, “How much have you listened to?” Lots of people have a resistance to opera because they’ve heard it’s only for the super nerdy or the very uncool, but their actual experience with opera is usually very limited. If they say they don’t like it, they probably haven’t heard or seen an opera that speaks to them yet. Remind students that opera is like film––it’s an art form that comes in many different shapes and sizes. There’s no one type of opera, and not all opera is the same. While they may not like some opera, they’re bound to find at least one opera they can relate to and enjoy in some way.
“It’s unrealistic. No one sings their thoughts in real life.”
Yes, they do. It’s called intonation. People’s voices rise and fall all the time according to a given situation. The standard example is a question, which usually makes our voices rise (“Like…really?”), but also consider what people say when they arrive in a familiar place: “Helloooooo!” or “Honey, I’m HOOoooome!” There’s music in there. Operatic singing is just an intensified version of things we already hear when we speak.
“I won’t be able to understand the words.”
True, the majority of popular operas are sung in Italian, French, or German, but that doesn’t mean students won’t be able to understand the action. First of all, a little preparation goes a long way. Sometimes, just reading a plot synopsis before the curtain goes up can help students stay on track throughout the evening. For the more ambitious students in the class, several opera companies will offer editions of English translations of operatic libretti to be read ahead of time.
In addition, many opera houses are equipped with state-of-the-art subtitles or supertitles that flash English translations above the stage or project them on the seats directly in front of you. However, when in doubt, the music will always give students a clue as to what’s going on. If the heroine is dying, you can bet there will be some ominous sounds coming from the orchestra pit.
“Opera is just for girls.”
Opera has lot of romance and swooning, it’s true, but it also contains a lot of action and intrigue. If the guys aren’t too keen on the stuff that appeals to the stereotypical female audience (the “boy meets girl” side of things), they might find that opera still has a lot to offer. The men of opera aren’t just sappy Romeos—they’re also warriors, kings, soldiers, revolutionaries, and gods. Think sword fights and magic weaponry. In fact, a lot of the comic book heroes of today like Thor and the X-Men have their roots in operatic characters.
“Isn’t it all just ladies with braided hair and Viking hats singing really high?”
First of all, her name is Brünnhilde, and no, she’s not all there is to opera. Let your students know that the Viking lady they’ve seen in commercials is actually more of an opera mascot—she’s just one symbolic character. While some operas feature whacky figures from mythical lands, a lot of them just focus on everyday people caught in sticky situations. And while some of them sing pretty high, they can also sing really, really low.