Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Great Performances
HomeBroadcast ScheduleFeedbackNewsletter Great Performances Shop
Musical TheaterOpera on FilmClassical MusicDanceRegional PerformanceCinema
Multimedia PresentationsDialogueEducational ResourcesEducational Resources
Lesson Plans for Teachers
Back to Educational Resources
Multiple Intelligences Theory
The King and the Little Prince (credit: Adrian Brooks)
Web Links: Other Helpful Resources on the Internet
Exploring Stereotypes and 19th-Century Culture from "The Merry Widow" from the San Francisco Opera
Grades: 9-12
OverviewProcedures for TeachersOrganizers for Students


Have your students view GREAT PERFORMANCES' THE MERRY WIDOW FROM THE SAN FRANCISCO OPERA in three sections (by act) as indicated by the activity plans outlined below. Prior to each viewing, the students should read the synopsis provided here or at the Metropolitan Opera's Web site ( Be sure to download and copy all Organizers for the students prior to beginning work on the activities in question. In addition, be sure to preview the video, double-check in advance that Internet access is functional, and verify that the sites listed in the "Bookmarked Sites" section are accessible to and appropriate for the students.

Media Components:

Video Resource

Computer Resources
  • Modem: 56.6 kbps or faster

  • Browser: Netscape Navigator 4.0 or above or Internet Explorer 4.0 or above

  • Personal computer (Pentium II 350 MHz or Celeron 600 MHz): Windows® 95 or higher and at least 32 MB of RAM

  • Macintosh computer: System 8.1 or above and at least 32 MB of RAM

  • Software: Microsoft Office; Illustrator or other drawing program

Bookmarked Sites:

The Metropolitan Opera: Opera Synopsis: "The Merry Widow"
This site provides a general synopsis of the operetta.

The Minnesota Opera: "The Merry Widow"
This site provides more background information about the operetta.

The following sites provide general information about opera and operetta.
The Classical Music Pages

San Francisco Opera

New York City Opera


The following sites provide information about Franz Lehár.
Lesson Tutor: Classical Composer Biography: Franz Lehár

Franz Lehár Biography

Karadar Classical Music: Composers Biographies: Franz Lehár

Duke University: DW3 Classical Music Resources: Franz Lehár Pages

Grove Music

The following sites provide information about 19th-century costumes.
Harlequin Costume & Dance: "The Merry Widow"

The History of Costume

19th-Century Paris Women's Fashion

Maxim's de Paris
This site provides information about the history of Maxim's in Paris.

Students will need the following supplies:

A copy of each Organizer handout
Handouts of Web resources (if computers are not available in the classroom)
Drawing/design pads and pencils
Materials necessary for building model sets and costumes
A journal (either paper or digital)


Introductory Activities:

It is advisable that the students view THE MERRY WIDOW in parts, by act. Before each viewing, a number of introductory steps should be taken to prepare the students for each of the following activities.

1. Break your class into five groups and assign each group one character from the opera. Inform them that they will assume the identity of this one character from THE MERRY WIDOW for the duration of the unit. The five characters are:
  • Anna Glawari (sometimes referred to as Hanna)

  • Count Danilo

  • Valencienne

  • Camille de Rosillon

  • Baron Zeta

Do not make any group larger than five students. If your class exceeds 25 students, then create duplicate groups. This should be decided before the students read the opera synopsis or view any of the production.

Inform the students that they will be expected to view the opera with an eye toward their assigned character because they will eventually be asked to make up and write an "offstage" story for that character.

Tell the students that as they view the opera, they will need to make notes about their specific character in their journals. They should use the questions in Organizer #1 to help guide their note taking. Make it clear that these journals will be evaluated for a grade and that they will be useful for their writing and research later on.

2. Print and copy the synopsis of "The Merry Widow" from either this Web site ( or The Metropolitan Opera site ( and read it with your students to be sure they understand the basic characters and plot of each act before viewing. Depending on the literary capability of the students, you may wish to go over specific vocabulary with them as well (see Organizer #2). In addition, after they read the synopsis of Act I, ask the students to begin their individual journals by writing the name of their character on the first page and then working with their group members to think of and list the basic attributes of that character. Every student should list the attributes in his or her own journal for later reference. Encourage them to draw sketches of their characters, if they are so inclined.

(Note to Teachers: Instead of asking the students to work individually on the character sketches, you may have them work in their groups to accomplish this task. Also, if you have enough computers, you may want to have the students keep a digital journal instead of a paper one.)

3. Now ask the students to work in groups to answer the following questions. Circulate among the groups to help them think about and discuss these questions.
  • Think of one or two literary characters who possess many of the same or similar attributes as those you have just listed for your character from THE MERRY WIDOW.

  • Can you think of real people who have all of these same attributes? Why or why not?

After about 10 minutes, ask a representative from each group to share their answers with the class. Students' answers may vary depending on their literary knowledge and on their prior understanding of stereotypes. Encourage the students to challenge each other's conclusions as a warm-up for the next step, Step 4.

4. Use Organizer #3 to help the students understand the concept of stereotype. Ask them to work in groups of two or three to answer the questions in the Organizer. Then, allowing 15 minutes or so at the end of the class period, ask the groups to share their answers to generate a class discussion. In general, the students should be encouraged to think about how stereotypes do NOT represent true people and about how literature uses stereotypes to make certain points and emphasize certain aspects of plot.

Learning Activities:

There are three main lessons for THE MERRY WIDOW -- one per act. Each activity assumes that the Introductory Activities have been completed in advance (synopsis of act read, appropriate act viewed, and journal notes about specific characters taken). Before beginning any of the activities, be sure to explain the evaluation/assessment plan as it is outlined in Organizer #4.

Activity 1: Researching THE MERRY WIDOW (Act I)

1. After viewing Act I, the students will work in their character groups to create a research presentation, for the purpose of "teaching" the rest of the class, that fulfills the following requirements:
  • Utilizes three or more of the "Bookmarked Sites" or other Internet sites to develop an educational presentation for the entire class on one or more of the topics listed in Organizer #5. You may either assign these topics to groups or allow them to choose. It is advisable that at least four different topics be chosen for the broadest possible educational value. Students are not required to submit a report, but are encouraged to use presentation software and to develop informational handouts for the rest of the class.

  • Answers the general questions outlined in Organizer #5 as specifically as possible.

  • Creates a concrete, real-world example or template of some aspect of the research topic chosen or assigned. For example, if the group is looking into the costumes chosen by Lehár, they might want to duplicate design plans for a certain costume. Or if the group is researching Maxim's and other popular haunts of 19th-century Paris, they might decide to make a model set for the stage. If the topic is Lehár's work, the group might create a chart of how his music changed over time. If the topic is his life, a timeline would further illustrate it.

2. After presenting and explaining the project and determining a presentation date, ask the groups to convene and determine roles in the project (i.e., who will do what). This may be broken up by assignment or in some other manner, but regardless, the students need to be encouraged to take into account one another's strengths and weaknesses when determining roles. If the students have trouble with this step, put more parameters on the project planning stage by requiring that each group submit to you a work plan detailing who will do what aspect of the project and when each part will be finished.

3. It is advisable to begin the research process with your students in class. The amount of class time you decide to spend will depend on your students' ability to work together and to work on research projects. If they have not been exposed to much Internet research, you may need to take them through the basics of conducting searches using the following sites:

  Noodle Tools

  Learning More About Search Engines and Subject Directories: FAQs

  SearchQuest: A WebQuest About Search Tools

  The Spider's Apprentice

If the students are more adept at research, you may be able to leave them to their own devices and assign most of the project for homework. Encourage the students to communicate via e-mail and Instant Messenger to assure that they work productively outside of class. Obviously, the thoroughness and level of work will depend largely on the amount of time you give them to complete the project.

4. The presentations should take place in one class period, if possible, and should be completed before the students view Act II. If you limit each group's presentation to five minutes, you should have time to fit them all into one period. If you feel you need more time, then by all means, schedule it. Depending on your students' motivation level, you may want to require them to take notes on each group's presentation and then test them on the material later. If you are more inclined to assess their understanding of the material in an alternative manner, you might tell the students that they will need to include a certain number of references to each group's material in a later writing assignment. In Activity 3, you will require the students to incorporate some of what they learned from these presentations into their writing.

Activity 2: Expressing Problems Through Language and Music (THE MERRY WIDOW, Act II)

1. View Act II, and discuss the main problem(s)/conflict(s) of the opera, which include but are not limited to:
  • infidelity

  • finding a mate

  • keeping a country solvent

  • love scorned
2. Review the "Women" song and dance (march) in Act II with the students and discuss it. You may want to replay this short section of Act II a few times while encouraging the students to listen carefully to the rhythm and words. Ask them to answer the following questions (the answers provided are suggestions to encourage the students' thinking if they have trouble coming up with possibilities themselves):
  • What is the problem in the song? (Women!)

  • How does the music itself relate to the lyrics? (The music is very methodical and repetitive, suggesting a never-ending problem and monotony.)

  • How is humor used in the lyrics? (The humor is rather self-deprecating; the men are complaining about women, but it is funny because they are making fun of themselves, not so much of the women. In addition, the complaints lodged are clear exaggerations -- hyperbole -- which is often very funny.)

  • Why is the song so appealing to the ear? (Its marchlike beat is easy to hear and to follow; many songs, poems, nursery rhymes are told in this same cadence.)
3. Discuss with the students the cadence of the song and how its marching beat makes it catchy and makes its lyrics easy to recite, remember, and repeat. To practice writing lyrics or poetry, work with the class to rewrite a line or two from the song to demonstrate how straightforward it is. Play the song a number of times so that the students can start to hear the beat associated with the song.

4. Now brainstorm with the class a list of other "problems" that might have a similar song written about them. Write the list on the blackboard.

5. Tell the students that they will work in their groups to write a verse about one of the newly generated problems written on the board. Ask them to begin by brainstorming and listing some examples of things associated with the problem they have chosen.

6. Ask the students to start thinking of phrases that can be recited to the same marching beat as "Women." Then ask them to write the verse down and perform it in some manner for the rest of the class. Again, encourage each group to assign roles to one another and to work together, set a time frame for the students to work within, and schedule a performance date. One student might be the recorder/writer, another might be the one generating the verse, and another might do the performing.

You may broaden the assignment slightly depending on the learning styles of your students. Instead of having them write actual song lyrics, you may want to transform this lesson into a poetry-writing experience (foregoing the music) or perhaps the creation of a performance piece that might describe a problem in another powerful way.

(Extension: This activity can be transformed into a much more detailed lesson by asking the students to take more time to create whole songs rather than just short verses. In addition, if you have the technology available, you can videotape the performances and then post them on your school or classroom Web site.)

Activity 3: Understanding Stereotypes Through Story Writing (THE MERRY WIDOW, Act III)

1. After viewing the third act, the students should have numerous notes about their characters in their journals. Begin this activity by explaining to the students that they will be using their notes to help them craft and write a fictional story about their character's "offstage" time.

2. First, ask the character groups to meet to share notes about and discuss the main facts of the plot as seen by the individual characters. This is an opportunity for those who understand the plot and characters well to demonstrate that understanding, and for those who are having difficulty to "catch up" before embarking on the writing project.

3. Now review the stereotypes definition (see Organizer #3) with the whole class.

4. Next, ask the groups to answer the following questions about each act in their journals, while brainstorming together (the answers in parentheses are examples):
  • What is my character's stereotype? (Camille de Rosillon: gigolo)

  • What are four characteristics of this stereotype? (handsome, womanizer, dishonest, manipulative)

  • During (or after) Act ___, my character feels_________, __________, and __________.
    (During [or after] Act I, my character feels like he's sneaking around; glad to be "flirting" with a beautiful woman, even though she is married; and uncaring about the feelings of others.)

  • During (or after) Act ___, my character, while offstage, might have done_________, _____________, and/or______________.
    (During [or after] Act I, my character, while offstage, might have been "flirting" with other women, leaving them in tears because they find out about the others, and scheming to steal the Baron's wife and his money!)
5. a) Have the students work on writing a first draft of their character's story that is not told in the opera. You may elect to have them work in class or in the computer lab, or you may assign this for homework. Students should follow the steps outlined in Organizer #6:
  • Brainstorm ideas for your story. Think: What did each character do that we did not see (while offstage)?

  • Make sure your story addresses behavior and feelings that the character would exhibit as a consequence of his or her stereotype.

  • Make sure one of the events in your story teaches the character a lesson his or her stereotype might need to learn.

  • DO NOT rewrite the opera. Write the behind-the-scenes story of your character.

b) Have the students work on rewriting the opera from their character's point of view, if the character had been assigned a different stereotype. You may elect to have the students work in class or in the computer lab, or you may assign this for homework. Students should follow the steps outlined in Organizer #6:
  • Pick a stereotype different from your character's and brainstorm ideas for your story.

  • Be sure your character behaves and possesses feelings that he or she would exhibit as a consequence of his or her new stereotype.

  • Rewrite the opera from your character's point of view, creating new feelings and behaviors according to the stereotype chosen.
6. Depending on the manner in which you teach writing, you may elect to conduct peer-revision sessions with your students so that they may improve their stories over time, or you may elect to revise their work yourself. Regardless, the students should go through a writing process and be given a hard due date for the final copy.

(Extension: If you have the time and would like to extend the outcomes of this activity, you might take this story writing to the publication stage by asking the students to illustrate their stories and then posting their work on your school or classroom Web site.)

Culminating Activity/Assessment:

1. Ask your students to share their stories with the class if they so desire. You might even organize a formal reading that is the culmination of the entire unit and allows for some closure.

2. Use Organizer #4 to assess your students' work.

Community Connections:
  • For Activity 1, you might consider expanding the Web-based research to include interviews with local opera actors or producers. Even a visit to an opera house for a tour of the stage and the orchestra would be beneficial.

  • If you have access to a composer of opera, a meeting or interview with him or her would enhance student understanding of the writing of opera.

  • If you have the opportunity and resources, take your students to a production of a similar opera, or better yet, "The Merry Widow" itself, if you are lucky enough to have a production near your school.

  Top banner photo: Cast from the Met Opera's production of "The Barber of Seville."

Visit PBS Teachers