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Kids' Play

Share a classroom visit with the metropolitan Opera Guild’s Students Compose Opera program.
By Joshua Rosenblum
Photographs by Dario Acosta

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Teaching artist Robert Stevenson, at work with third-grade students at P.S. 32 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
© Dario Acosta
“It’s important, because it helps you express how you feel.” —NOAH, FIFTH GRADE, P.S. 208

“WE'RE NOT CREATING Götterdämmerung.” Stuart Holt, director of school programs and community engagement for the Metropolitan Opera Guild (which publishes OPERA NEWS), makes this clear right away. “It can start with something pretty simple—hopefully, something that has a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Holt, a vocal-education specialist who came to the Met Guild after eight years of directing education programs at Sarasota Opera and Nashville Opera, explains how the process actually works. “The students are guided by a Guild ‘teaching artist.’ They start with source material that’s derived from consultation with the classroom teacher. Maybe they’re studying magnets, so we want to write an opera about magnets. Or they’re learning about the creation of New York and New Amsterdam, and they’re talking about the Lenape Indians and Peter Stuyvesant.” Sometimes, Holt says, the students take an idea and put a new spin on it. “We’ve done Paul Revere—I’ve seen it set on a playground, and it’s really about Paulina, who’s being bullied by Brit the Red. They come up with a system to warn each other that Brit is coming, and they try to defeat him. Brit just had really low self-esteem, and that’s why he was mean.”

When it comes to actually creating the opera, the whole class is involved with writing the libretto, sometimes starting with just a few lines of text generated from a word bank that the students create. Composition, says Holt, comes from basic tools. “The teaching artist picks a starting pitch. Do we think our notes should go up or down next? Stepwise? With a leap? They play around with pitches and sing them back and try to come up with a melody that everyone is in agreement with.” For accompaniment, some artists bring an instrument—a guitar or a keyboard—or use the computer program GarageBand to create instrumental tracks. In other instances, students can make their own accompaniment, with humming or body percussion.

Once the students have the libretto and the songs, they start working on staging and the creation of minimal sets and costumes. “When I say ‘set,’ we’re talking about a backdrop, or a big piece of butcher paper,” says Holt. When the opera is ready, the students put on a performance. Depending on the age group, this can be done for the entire school or privately in the classroom, as an exchange with students from another class. (Most participating classes range from kindergarten through
fifth grades; the oldest students are high-school juniors.)

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The third-grade students of P.S. 32 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
© Dario Acosta

Students Compose Opera involves a residency of eighteen class visits over eighteen weeks, a sizable commitment on the part of the school and the teacher. “If you have buy-in from everybody, it’s more successful,” Holt says. “When we take on new schools, we still see some skepticism. But usually once the teachers see their students engaged in the program, they jump on board right away. I love when they say, ‘Oh, this artist is so great, I’m even using their techniques when they’re not here.’”

There’s evidence that it’s working: in 2010 the Guild received a $1 million grant, paid out over four years, from the U.S. Department of Education to study the impact of the Students Compose Opera, as well as the rest of the Guild’s Opera Based Learning programs, on classroom achievement and development. It turns out that student achievement is greater for classrooms that have been through the program. “It proved what we already knew,” Holt says with justifiable pride. 

The teaching artists, based all over New York City, include composers, librettists, stage directors, singers and instrumentalists. All must complete two weeks of summer training, plus three additional sessions during the school year. The hard work is worth it. “Working with the teacher and students on transforming source material into a piece that can be performed through operatic skills is an inspiring process,” says teaching artist Leah Miles, a composer, lyricist and playwright. “I get to be part of the students’ magical world and guide them not only through the writing process, to create engaging characters, but through the performance skills they need in order to make their story heard.”

Miles’s former students are enthusiastic about their experiences in the program. “It’s important, because it helps you express how you feel,” says Noah, a fifth grader at P.S. 208 Elsa Ebeling School in Brooklyn, who participated last year.His classmate Adrienna concurs: “It makes kids express their creativity. We can make our own melody and words and put our own message into it.” Several students said they still write songs on their own.

“I would love to proselytize to the masses and make a case for this idea of arts-learning that’s embedded in work they’re already doing,” Holt says. “It exposes students to opera, but it also makes them feel like they have ownership of that art form, creating these works with their colleagues. We’re building a community of artists within the school.” spacer 

Joshua Rosenblum , a composer, conductor and pianist, teaches Composing for Musical Theater at Yale. 

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