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The King and the Little Prince (credit: Adrian Brooks)
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Making the Nightingale Sing from ''The Nightingale''
Grades: 9-12
OverviewOrganizers for Students


This activity will help the students learn about the fairy tale as a form of literature and understand its primary and secondary purposes.

1. Ask the students to brainstorm examples of fairy tales. (Responses may include: "Cinderella," "Snow White," "The Ugly Duckling," "Swan Lake," "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" or any of the "Arabian Nights" tales, "The Princess and the Pea," or "The Little Mermaid.")

2. Ask them what these stories have in common. Their responses should include the following. If they don't, try to ask leading questions that will yield these responses.

  • Fairy tales are part of an oral storytelling tradition and have been passed down from generation to generation.
  • They often include moral lessons, happy endings, and/or social criticism.
  • Fairy tales often feature characters like fairies, goblins, elves, giants, princes, and princesses.
  • Fairy tales are often associated with children's literature, but appeal to adults as well.
  • The villains in the stories are usually punished to serve as an example to the larger society.
  • Often the child, or the most innocent character, is the one who tells the truth.
3. Explain to the students that they will be reading the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Nightingale" and viewing a contemporary adaptation of the opera based on it by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. After this, they will work on a "retelling" of the story, rewriting brief scenes from the opera with their own lyrics or poetic verses. The students will immediately notice that the GREAT PERFORMANCES broadcast of the opera is extremely unconventional. It is a combination of traditional performance and high-tech animation, so their retelling can incorporate whatever genre of music or form of poetry they like and are comfortable with.


Activity One

The purpose of this activity is for the students to work collaboratively to understand the development and the perspective of the characters in the fairy tale.

1. Depending on the size of the class, the students can work individually or in pairs or triplets. Groups larger than three would be too unwieldy.

2. Have them read the fairy tale online at or While reading, they should highlight major turning points in the story. Examples include:
  • The Emperor's discovery of the existence of a Nightingale on his land that he was previously unaware of.
  • The search for the Nightingale.
  • The Emperor's reaction upon hearing the bird sing for the first time.
  • The Nightingale's reaction to the palace.
  • The Nightingale's reaction to the artificial bird.
  • The Emperor's banishment of the Nightingale.
  • The Nightingale's reaction to being banished.
  • The Emperor's reaction to the demise of his artificial bird.
  • The Nightingale's reason for coming back to the Emperor.
  • The moral of the story.
The reading and highlighting of points of conflict in the story can be completed for homework or in small groups.

2. Reconvene the groups and make a master list of the major turning points or conflict points they've identified on the blackboard. Then have each group pick one of the scenes listed. This will be the scene for which they write the song or poem in their version of "The Nightingale."

3. Watch the video of GREAT PERFORMANCES' "The Nightingale." As the students are watching, they should focus on the scene that they have chosen to retell and evaluate how the scene was presented.


The purpose of this activity is for the students to understand the motivation of the characters in their chosen scene from the opera.

1. To demonstrate understanding, the students will write a song or poem from the perspective of one of the characters in their scene; the song can be in any musical genre (rock, pop, folk, rap, disco) and the poem can be in any form (free verse, ballad, sonnet, acrostic; limerick and haiku would not work for this exercise) they choose.

2. Have them spend one class period drafting and writing their song or poem.

3. The next class period should be spent editing and rewriting. Then they can polish, rehearse, and prepare their final drafts for the performance.

4. The final class will be a presentation in the chronological order of the fairy tale. The students can read their song lyrics or poem. For extra effect, they can perform with music, dance, or visual aids.


1. An alternative to picking different scenes to reinvent would be to highlight one pivotal moment or conflict and have multiple groups retell it. This would be an interesting exercise to see how disparate groups can interpret the same text differently.

2. To further the discussion about the use of fairy tales in literature, have the students research some of the other fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen. How many of them do they know and why?

3. In the fairy tale, people who could write poetry composed beautiful verses about the Nightingale. The class can produce its own collection of "Odes to the Nightingale."

4. "The Little Mermaid" is another fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen. Have the class watch the Disney film and then read Andersen's original tale. Afterward, compare and contrast the two. How faithful was the film to the original story? How do the endings compare? Does the moral of the original story come through in the Disney film?

This same activity can be done with other film adaptations of Andersen's fairy tales, such as "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Princess and the Pea," "The Red Shoes," "The Snow Queen," and "Thumbelina."

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

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