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The Classroom Connection

TRISTAN KRAFT and F. PAUL DRISCOLL explore the impact The Met: HD Live in Schools has had on students and teachers.

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Talent Unlimited High School students performing onstage at the Julia Richman Education Complex, during the first intermission of the HD transmission of Giulio Cesare in April 2013
© Dario Acosta 2013
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Montana students at the HD transmission of Satyagraha in 2011, with origami puppets created as part of a Satyagraha study project
© Kevin Cleary 2013
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Author William Berger speaks at a Cesare teacher-training session in the Met's List Hall
© Gregory Downer 2013

It's a bright late-April afternoon, and the conversation is getting lively in teacher Jayne Skoog's opera–musical-theater class at Talent Unlimited High School. A voice teacher for all grades at Talent Unlimited — one of several schools housed in the Julia Richman Education Complex on the East Side of Manhattan — Skoog is leading some of her students in a discussion about the Met's new production of Giulio Cesare, which they saw the previous Saturday in their school auditorium as a presentation of The Met: HD Live in Schools program. The Talent Unlimited students, most of them aspiring performers, enjoyed the show. But was the performance what they expected? One of the students observes, "I never thought there would be dancing in an opera. When we saw Cleopatra dancing with Tolomeo, it was weird, but I liked it." Another student was surprised that "Julius Caesar would have so many high-pitched, long — what's the word? He had so many of those, and I'm like, 'Oh, wow, you have to do that for so long.' The amount of breath support and technique he would have had to use — and he's a guy!" A third student comments on Cesare's dramaturgy: "They dwell a lot on emotion in a lot of the arias — they spend like ten minutes straight focusing on one emotion, just so you can almost feel what they're feeling."

HD Live in Schools, one of the programs run by the Metropolitan Opera's education department, is an outgrowth of the company's highly successful series The Met: Live in HD, which was launched in December 2006. Marsha Drummond, the Met's director of education, credits Met general manager Peter Gelb and Joel I. Klein, then Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, as originators of the idea to provide some New York City high schools with HD equipment. "We worked with the Department of Ed to identify one high school in each borough and outfit it with HD equipment," she says. "We started with Roméo et Juliette in December 2007 and beamed it into those five high schools. Then, in our second season, in 2008–09, we said, 'Well, what can we do across the country?' So we partnered with eighteen school districts, where kids get movie tickets to go to their local movie theater to watch the HD, rather than outfitting individual schools. And today we're in twenty-nine districts, including New York City, serving about 130 schools. And we have a waiting list." 

For the 2013–14 season, the program will encompass thirty-three school districts in twenty-four states. Major funding for HD Live in Schools is made possible by Bank of America, together with additional foundation and individual support. 

One of the striking things about the way the HD Live in Schools program has evolved is its adaptability to the needs and interests of its participants. For example, not all of the Live in HD transmissions are used in the HD Live in Schools program. During the 2012–13 Met season, there were twelve Live in HD transmissions; from that list of twelve, five were selected for the HD Live in Schools, the choice of titles determined by factors such as school calendars (some transmission dates fall during school vacations), adaptability for classroom content, potential entertainment value for a younger audience, and length. The Met prepares study materials for the season's five operas, and students at participating schools attend either four or five of the productions. The curriculum is developed with the help of what Drummond terms "lots of advisors. We get together with our editorial group and talk about the operas — what are the big points to hit, what not to miss, what are the big musical numbers. We work with Barbara Murray, the director of music programs in the [New York City] Department of Education, just to vet the opera list up front.

"HD Live in Schools pays for the movie-theater tickets. The schools get fifty free movie tickets per show. Representatives from the school districts come to New York City for a three-day conference at the Met. They go through the lineup for the season, they meet with teaching artists, they do backstage tours, they go to performances, they hear from professionals at the Met. So the teachers get enthusiastic. They're excited about the Met now — they understand it. And then they go back and train their fellow teachers and get their kids excited. And then they do the program for the rest of the year.

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Students arriving at the HD transmission of Rigoletto in Helena, Montana
© Dylan Brown 2013
 

"We explain the program to potential participants, so they have a firm understanding of what they need to bring to the table. It's not just a program in which a school gets free tickets to the movies. The participating schools have to get their kids there on Saturdays. They need to do busing and pay for it. They have to have substitute teachers on hand. They need to have teachers willing to work on Saturdays for free. They have to be enthusiastic about the program and support it financially and really get behind infusing opera into their curriculum." 

Some operas are infused into a school's curriculum more easily than others. Giulio Cesare was a popular choice with many schools because of its adaptability to history, English, drama and music courses — and because of David McVicar's high-energy, near-vaudeville-style staging. But the singular musical and dramatic world of Handelrequired some explanation. At an early-April Giulio Cesare training session in the Met's List Hall, author and broadcaster William Berger, a familiar voice from the Met's radio broadcasts, offered some New York-area teachers pithyinsights into Giulio Cesare's da capo arias: "Handel isn't trying to get you from Point A to Point B. He's keeping you suspended in time." Later, when touching on the telegraphic nature of Cesare's libretto, Berger advised, "The three words you need to know [here] are 'morte,' 'vendetta' and 'amor.'" Later in the session, Elizabeth London, an energetic teaching artist and Shakespeare specialist, advised the teachers to "puzzle out the arias." London is one of several teaching artists employed by the Met to run student prep sessions in the classrooms, as well as teacher training. At classroom sessions later in the month of April, London delivered a deft thirty-minute introduction to the opera's movement, language and music, as well as to the non-traditional style of the Met's McVicar staging.

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© Dario Acosta 2013 

Stuart Holt is the director of school programs and community engagement at the Metropolitan Opera Guild, which has its own education programs, and which is also the publisher of OPERA NEWS. Holt experienced the HD Live in Schools program when he was director of education and outreach at Nashville Opera. "At Nashville Opera, we had a robust program that was touring to elementary schools. And our middle-school and high-schoolers were coming to our final dress rehearsal. I was in Nashville for five years, and we participated in the HD Live in Schools for four of those years. It was a great program for us to augment our own elementary-school touring experience. Our students not only were seeing what the Met does and seeing HD Live up close and personal, but then we allowed those participating schools to come to our two final dress rehearsals each season as well — for free — so that they were seeing a different piece in the opera house. Some years, they saw the same things — it just ended up that they could see our very traditional Traviata at Nashville Opera and they could see the HD transmission of Willy Decker's Traviata staging from the Met, which were two very different productions. That provided a lot of discussion for students and for teachers — comparison and contrast, what they liked, what they didn't like. It was a great supplement to programming that we were already offering, because it allowed us to build additional relationships with those middle-school and high-school teachers. I went in and talked to students about the piece and showed clips from different productions, so there was an additional preparation component for those kids. We also did a newsletter for them that had production photos, additional things that teachers could use in the classroom, some guiding questions that enhanced the materials that the Met already sends."

Drummond cites Nashville Opera as "an ideal situation for us — an opera company that would participate so that the kids can get a real live experience as well as HD. We don't want them to just associate opera with a movie-theater experience. We really want them in a house, experiencing that. So this was an ideal situation. It doesn't happen in every market, but we try. We want kids to like this — we want to whet their appetites to be lifelong opera-lovers.

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© Dario Acosta 2013 

Part of the appetite-whetting involves the Met's designing new ways to support traditional teaching materials. On April 18, nine days before the Cesare HD transmission, students from Fargo, ND, Salt Lake City, UT, Keene, NH, and the Bronx participated in a Google Hangout with English mezzo Alice Coote, who sang Sesto in the Met production. Coote answered questions from the students, who watched her live (as she watched them) on computer screens. After apologizing for what she called "my strange British accent," Coote sang a bit of "Cara speme," complimented a student on his hat ("You all look pretty cool, but that hat is amazing") and admitted that the one thing she must do before going onstage is "Cleaning my teeth. I have to do it. It feels strange if I don't."

Individual schools have expanded the scope of the HD Live in Schools program in unexpected ways. In connection with the 2012 transmission of The Enchanted Island, the Met's Baroque pastiche, middle-school students from La Villa School of the Arts in Jacksonville, Florida, created The Frosted Land, their own forty-five-minute opera pastiche based on Baroque music. Students in Salt Lake City, who were preparing for the Enchanted Island transmission, sent mezzo Joyce DiDonato questions via Facebook, which she answered via video (taped in her dressing room during an Enchanted Island performance) and posted on YouTube. On the day of the Giulio Cesare HD transmission at the Julia Richman Education Complex, voice students from Talent Unlimited performed opera arias, with piano accompaniment, during the opera's first intermission. The audience for Cesare at Julia Richman — which included members of the local East Side community, as well as students and teachers — was vocal and appreciative, with the livelier moments in the staging, such as the high-octane antics of Christophe Dumaux's Tolomeo, winning spontaneous applause.

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Helena students, teachers and chaperones at the Met, 2013
© Tim Cox 2013
 

During the 2012–13 school year, a group of parents from Montana's Helena School District One organized a raffle, a dinner and a silent auction to help underwrite an early-spring journey to Lincoln Center for twenty-nine students, most of them orchestra musicians in the seventh and eighth grades. In New York, the students and their chaperones took a backstage tour of the Met, attended a performance of Faust and the April 1 dress rehearsal of Giulio Cesare and had a post-dress-rehearsal conversation with two members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra — principal oboe Nathan Hughes and principal horn Erik Ralske. Back home in Montana, the students saw Giulio Cesare for a second time when it was shown in HD on April 27 at Cinemark 8 Helena. Kevin Cleary, a teacher at C. R. Anderson Middle School in Helena who has been involved with HD Live in Schools for several seasons, made the trip to New York with the students. "When the kids saw Cesare a second time in HD, they loved the production even more than at the dress — they were waiting for some moments that they found really exciting. David McVicar's [staging] made the whole opera more accessible for kids. Cesare singing about his love while they are coming to kill him, and then jumping around the bed — kids found that hilarious. The kids had never heard a countertenor sing until we did some activities around that before they saw the show. The reaction was what you'd expect from middle-schoolers — 'Oh my gosh, I've never heard a man sing that high.' But by the end of the show, most of them weren't even paying attention to the tessitura, because the characters were so perfectly played — especially Dumaux as Tolomeo. I heard them talking more about his character — how cruel and evil he was — and less about his voice by the end of the opera." Cleary, who got hooked on the HD experience at the Met's 2009 transmission of La Rondine, says, "The new productions in the series tend to be winners for our kids, although non-linear stories, like Satyagraha, can be challenging. But I really like something that challenges me, and I like to bring that to kids. Because that's a big thing — this stuff is challenging. It's supposed to be challenging. But it is incredibly rewarding."

Asked if she was surprised by the way the program had been received, Drummond says, "The biggest surprise to me is that kids in 2013 can actually sit through an entire opera — and stay engaged, and not text the entire time. Because it's a live experience, the students are clapping in the movie theater or in the school at the same time the audience at the opera house is. You can tell there's a genuine engagement, and they're sharing that engagement live with the Met audience. I have to admit that is surprising to me — and encouraging, because kids' attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. Everyone's attention spans are getting shorter. So that's my real takeaway — that kids can sit. They enjoy the music. They love the costumes. If they put their egos aside, they can really just jump into it." spacer 

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6