Voices in Education

Opera for All: Why This Art Form Can — and Should — Be for Students

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“Isn’t opera awfully difficult for students?” people often ask me in my line of work. “Drawing, literature, music -- these are easy to bring into a classroom. But a four-hundred-year-old art form running several hours in length, featuring often puzzling plots, and sung entirely in a foreign language? Why should I take my students to see that?”

It’s a fair question. Opera has long been viewed as a notoriously complex medium, more suited to connoisseurs than casual listeners. Its reputation as a rarefied commodity of the ultra rich hasn’t helped it gain traction as an art form for the ninety-nine percent. And then there are those convoluted stories and foreign languages and absurdly long running times …

Opera Can be for Everyone at Any Age

This idea of opera for everyone is the cornerstone of the Metropolitan Opera’s educational initiatives. Each year, nearly 30,000 students attend opera performances through the Met’s HD Live in Schools and Access Opera programs. In addition to bringing students to see opera performances (either in the opera house itself or in local cinemas, which regularly host live broadcasts from the Met’s stage), the Met’s educational team strives to bring operas directly into classrooms nationwide. Educator guides that lead teachers through individual operas and provide ready-to-use classroom activities, graphic-novel-style synopses, and arrangements of opera’s greatest hits for school music ensembles are just a few of the materials we make available free of charge to teachers around the globe.

As the Met’s educational content manager, I firmly believe that opera can be a rewarding part of any school curriculum. Yet there is another reason for my advocacy of opera’s inclusion in the classroom: I am convinced that student involvement can make opera a richer, more relevant, and more meaningful art form.

Engaging Students with Opera in a Joyful and Relatable Way

Let’s begin with the basics. Why do I believe students of all ages can confidently and joyfully engage with opera? Here are five reasons

First, operas tell stories that students can relate to. Here is a selection of themes from the 2018–19 HD Live in Schools season:

  • First love (and first loss)
  • Frustration with parents and rules
  • Cliques and the people who lead them
  • Loneliness and the difficulty of being an outsider
  • Finding your place in the world

Sound familiar? I challenge you to find a teenager who hasn’t felt at least some of these emotions and felt them acutely. Operas tend to take place in locations or eras far removed from our own, but that doesn’t mean we can’t understand what their characters are going through, and the very fact that opera characters tend to wear their over-the-top emotions on their sleeves makes opera an ideal catalyst for critical thinking, deep self-reflection, and empathy.

Second, opera sits at the center of a wonderfully wide web of classroom subjects. At its heart, opera has three core components: music, text, and stage design. As such, a handful of classroom subjects necessarily contribute to the operatic process: chorus, band, and orchestra; poetry and foreign languages (especially French, German, and Italian); drama; and visual arts. 

Digging deeper,  we find that opera’s roots are strengthened  by an extensive network of subjects and ideas. Interested in history? Opera will let you dive into both the era when an opera was composed and the era it depicts. In fact, the Met and PBS recently joined forces to offer three classroom-ready activities that use opera as a lens for studying international relations in the early 20th century, the myths and realities of the Wild West, and the development of the atomic bomb. Interested in famous works of literature? Click here for three classroom activities that investigate how Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted for the opera stage. Interested in Egyptology? Ethics? Puppetry? Math? Opera has something for you.

Third, whether you like to sing, compose, paint, sew, or wield a hammer, opera needs your talents.You don’t have to be a star singer to be involved in opera: every day, some 1300 people go to work at the Met, and the variety of jobs they do is staggering! You certainly know that there is a costume department, but did you know there is a team of people dedicated to painting fabric and leather so that costumes (and shoes) are exactly the right color under the harsh stage lights? There are people who cast foam molds to make light-weight set pieces that will look heavy and imposing onstage. There are tailors and seamstresses, neon-light artists, and the stagehands who put it all in place. There are lawyers and accountants and security guards. This year, the opera even features jugglers! And if one student signs up for music lessons, woodshop, painting, creative writing, or even circus school because of what they saw onstage at the Met, I know that we have done our job well.

Fourth, although opera can be found in some places, opera can be made anywhere. Opera may not be readily available in your community, and even programs such as the Met’s Live in HD broadcast series, though widespread, are limited in their reach. But that doesn’t mean opera isn’t available to you and your students. The basic ingredients of opera—a story, music, costumes (textiles), stage design (visual arts and woodshop)—are practiced in numerous schools, clubs, and households. In fact, it could be your students who first introduce their community to opera.

And finally, student engagement helps opera grow and evolve. It’s an old adage that we teachers learn as much from our students as they learn from us. When it comes to opera, I truly believe it is our students who can help opera reach its full potential as an art form. This is because most students bring with them no preconceived notions about what opera should be. Instead, when students attend an opera for the first time, they see pure expressive possibility. By connecting opera to their own experiences, students offer astounding insights into the art form. Last year, for instance, one student was curious if it was possible to mesh her own cultural heritage with traditional opera; a few months later, her school in Dallas, Texas, performed a Mariachi rendition of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. And those of us at the Met came to understand this iconic opera in an entirely new way.

Opera need not be an art form stuck in the past. With student involvement, it can remain a living, breathing art form that grows, changes, and adapts to the world in which we all live. These materials can help new audiences feel at home with opera -- and inspire seasoned opera goers to find something new in the art form that offers all of us an outlet for creative expression and insight.

Kamala Schelling

Kamala Schelling Metropolitan Opera’s Educational Content Manager

Kamala Schelling is the Metropolitan Opera’s educational content manager, a position that includes overseeing all curricular materials for the Met’s educational programs and helping bring opera to nearly 30,000 students each year. She received her PhD in music history from Yale University, where her awards and scholarships included the Prize Teaching Fellowship, the top award given to graduate student instructors at Yale. When not watching operas or traveling the world, Kamala can usually be found baking bread, reading in Central Park, or watching murder mysteries with her cat, Margarita, by her side.

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