Selfishness. Betrayal. Alliances changing overnight. Crushes at first sight, followed by crazy behavior if the “beloved” does not reciprocate. Self-esteem issues on a Napoleonic level.
Is it any wonder Jamie Dickens calls opera “middle-school drama pretending to be high art”?
He’d know. He directs the band program at Randolph Middle School, and he has been coached by the Metropolitan Opera’s “HD Live in Schools” program.
For teachers such as Dickens and Independence High School’s Kristine Neale, that means an expenses-paid, three-day trip to New York for immersion in America’s biggest opera company: backstage tours, meetings with artists and designers, sessions in which teachers write mini-musicals. (“Dancing Beak to Beak,” Dickens’ opus, paired a swan with a platypus.)
They come back to Charlotte and 40 other cities charged up with a love of opera and charged with a task: Instill a love of the 416-year-old art form in the next generation.
Why now – and how?
Peter Gelb started the HD program in theaters soon after becoming the Met’s general manager in 2006, then added the educational component. The man who got his first job as a 17-year-old Met usher quickly saw the problem:
“Opera and all of high art require more intense (outreach), given that public school systems have dropped the ball for decades. The only hope for young people to develop into fully cultured members of society is with companies like the Met.
“When I was in high school, public schools were infused with arts education. Philip Glass graduated from Juilliard in the late ’60s, and his first job was as composer-in-residence for the Pittsburgh school system. Every kid then had a chance to play an instrument, to learn about music.”
Gelb began a program where educational packets link operatic themes and stories to school curricula – with an emphasis on Common Core standards – and students and families get free tickets to certain Met high-definition simulcasts. (This month’s options: Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” April 2, and Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” April 30. Anyone can buy tickets to these, and you can find the educator guides online.)
“I have a hard time getting students to do anything out of school,” says Neale, who teaches French and choral music. “They work. They babysit for working parents. They have a heavy course load and extracurricular activities.
“But we take up to 30 people to HD events at least once a year, and not a single student has said, ‘God, what a waste of time.’ They relate to mayhem and murder and adultery, which is part of their culture. The average person doesn’t realize that’s what opera is about.”
Neale immerses her students: She explains plots and plays arias to them in advance, sometimes turning off fluorescent lights and setting out candles to heighten the atmosphere. She even drives the bus to simulcasts.
And the message hits home. Andrew Murphy, an 18-year-old Independence High senior, has been playing classical piano since he was 4. He’d sampled popular arias on disc and seen Opera Carolina’s “Flying Dutchman” two years ago, but he hadn’t fully absorbed opera’s charms until Neale took her group to the baroque-era mashup “The Enchanted Island.”
“Opera is the total work of art,” says Murphy. “It has literary aspirations, there’s the virtuosity of the staging, the beautiful music … even if you don’t want to take it all in, you can focus on one or two elements that appeal to you. Oscar Wilde (said) opera’s refined, but it’s the ultimate in excess.”
It can seem so: The title character of Alban Berg’s “Lulu” (a Met HD offering this season) draws men and women to her sexually – sometimes fatally – before losing a fortune, becoming a prostitute and getting slain by Jack the Ripper.
“Different operas suit different ages,” says Dickens. “A ‘Magic Flute’ appeals to elementary schoolers. Randolph’s turn came with ‘Turandot.’ An ‘Elektra’ works better for high school. The younger the student, the easier it is to get them interested: Sixth-graders don’t have a pre-programmed response to new things.
“Almost any opera can be connected with curriculum. Think about ‘Elektra’: You’re from a distant land, you have isolated yourself, society has ostracized you. That might relate to immigration issues we face today.”
Such topicality appeals to Bank of America, which has long-standing ties with the Met and became a founding partner of HD Live in Schools. It underwrites, with an undisclosed amount, the trips to New York, educational packets and simulcast tickets.
Charles Bowman, Charlotte market president for the bank, finds this a good fit: Many of his employees who give to Arts & Science Council fund drives cite education as the main reason. But how do you measure achievement with such a program?
“There are levels of success,” says Bowman, who went from “not an opera-goer to humoring my wife to enjoying myself.” First, he says, “there’s the number of young people exposed to it at 180-plus schools. The second level is where teachers take it (further): They lead up to it with preparation, and students learn someone doesn’t just show up onstage to sing.
“The home runs will be the individuals 10 years from now who are inspired to pursue an art or craft as a performer. But this is about planting seeds. Like a lot of things the bank does, we don’t expect immediate return.”
Gelb realizes he can’t “put chips in kids to track their cultural habits. We have enough confidence in the art we present to know it has to move some people, and children are more open to cultural experiences than grown-ups who’ve never been exposed.
“We’ll measure success by whether we’re around 30 years from now.”
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