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MET Opera Guild Creating Original Opera Program - Report - Bericht


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Creating Original Opera
Teacher Training Program

A lifetime experience

Text and Photos by Birgit Popp

When I heard the first time about the Creating Original Opera Program of the Metropolitan Opera Guild (MOG) Education Department, I was thrilled by the idea that school kids would create their own opera from the basic idea to the text and the score over the stage settings, costume design, make-up and lightening to public relation managers and historians, who would document the whole process of creating an opera.

In October 2000, during a symposium of the European Music Theater Academy held at Vienna, I was first introduced to the Education Department’s programs in a speech given by Gretchen Weerheim, Schools and Family Program Coordinator.  It was she who raised my interest in the Creating Original Opera Program. She organizes, develops, stages and tours in and around New York City, bringing opera productions that introduce students to the ingredients of opera to the schools and other public places. Well, to introduce kids to opera in a performance that describes what is a tenor, a soprano, a plot, an aria, a duet or so on, I could still imagine. But that school kids from ages four to eighteen would create their own opera without taking the plot from an existing story - this was more than hard for me to envision!

Nevertheless, I more than liked the idea since it means that the young people would not only be introduced to one art like music but to all the arts including singing, of course, but as well writing, composing, painting, designing, acting, modeling. What would be more comprehensive? I also liked the idea that a school kid that does not like to perform and sing would still have a chance to participate in the program as a writer, composer, set or costume designer, make-up artist, PR person, historian or, if it would be more of a handicraft-skilled person, a carpenter or electrician. I consider it as a chance for the kids to get a greater idea of their own possibilities, to open up to new skills and to give them more self-confidence. In a time people tend to be more and more passive instead of actively using their skills, this is a marvelous opportunity! And, it’s a great chance for very different kids to find a common base of communication.

Three first level one-week-courses were offered throughout the U.S. The training session at Princeton University, NJ, was most suitable to my schedule. Besides, this one catered to international participants, anyway (and, honestly, to take a course in the famous site of Princeton University added some thrill to it for me.)

My original thought had been more to follow the course as a journalist and observer but as it turned out, I became one among equals. My colleagues were mostly schoolteachers. The schools participating in this program - about 850 of them have joined it in twenty years - are supposed to send one classroom and one music teacher to COO training.  These participants agree to commit to this program during school hours and that it will count for their curriculum. Another possibility is a whole grade can participate in this program, but this could make organizing this program much more difficult especially since it has to be done during the school day. Exceptions are only made by the MOG's Education Department for schools outside the U.S. to suit their special needs.

And, to that end, there are quite a lot of schools in Great Britain, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Mexico, to name a few, who participate in this program or adopt it at least in the frame of their particular possibilities. Some of the American schools sent even more than two teachers. Some of the participating teachers were from schools at which the program has been established already for years. These were teachers who saw a COO production and wanted to set up an original opera also for their own class.

Whoever had believed our first meeting would be just a short get-to-know-each-other, was proved wrong very soon. The registration and room check-in had to be done by 3:00 pm, because at four was our first meeting. First of all, I was surprised by the large number participants – 49 - most of them coming from the US. But there were also teachers from other parts of the world: Greece, Mexico, The Netherlands, Puerto Rico…and me, a journalist from Germany. The next day we were divided into two groups, one with 25 participants and the other with 24. In our first meeting, we were introduced to theater games as a warm-up exercise, with the purpose to relieve tension, to create and release energy, and to build reaction skills (as to the commands of the stage and music directors). These games opened all our following morning and afternoon sessions. And, already in the first meeting during those games we were building acting skills.  We were asked to walk as if we were on a metal surface with magnets on our shoes, or how one would walk if they were going to their boss' office.  Right away I noticed the acting potential in our group! The first afternoon gave us also on overview about the professions/jobs involved in an opera production and the way it would be set up with the kids.

First thing - after the warm-up - on the second day, a Wednesday, were the auditions and the callbacks. Each teacher had to sing some words - quite an exciting experience since like most of us had never sung in front of other people. But, we got through this pretty well thanks to our teachers Shellie Bransford, the director of the COO Teacher Training Program, and Margie Duffield, herself a writer of plays and song lyrics (when she’s not teaching). Margie and Danny Askenasi, a composer and actor, were mostly in charge of my group.  Shellie and Peter Hoyle, a visual artist, were teaching the other group. Our group eventually was named Opera Soup Company, with the subtitle “24 Girls and One Guy “ - guess why (and in the second group, the COOP Opera Company, the proportion was no different).

Next step was the writing, which included the creation of a theme and a thesis, the development of the characters, their needs and relationships and finally the conflict. We went through quite a discussion, trying hard to develop somehow a realistic situation. Finally, with Margie giving us a bit of direction, we set our plot on a farm after WW II with two sisters, a mom and a grandmom. One of the sisters, who seems to be indispensable at running the farm, has the dream of being an artist on a high wire. She decides to leave the family when one day she gets an offer to join a circus. Finally it is the grandmom who rescues the family peace, when she reveals to be much stronger than everybody had believed and takes the place of the artistic-inspired granddaughter.

So now that the story was developed, music was needed.  It was Danny's turn to show us how we do this. Though it is not necessary to have a person who can read notes, it is better to have someone! Fortunately both of our groups had very talented music teachers who were talented piano players.  These became our composers and we created some beautiful music. 

As a child, my music teacher told me that I could not sing.  I have also noted that many teachers do this to no purpose.  Children who are bad singers are also accused of throwing off the rhythm of the music.  Again, to no purpose – children should be allowed to express themselves however they can.  So imagine what an experience it was for me to sing and nobody complained!!!!!!!! Especially helpful were Shellie and Danny giving us instruction in vocal techniques, coaching the spoken voice and teaching music.

While the story was refined, lyrics were added and music composed for them.  Now came the time to develop design and technical skills. Besides costume, setting and lighting design, we were also introduced in handicraft skills like sawing the posts for the flats, nailing them together, gluing the wood on the frame.  We also cut the large tin cans, acquired from the cafeteria, into two pieces to create the lampshades.  Then we took these lampshades and added lamp bases, 100 W bulbs, some wires and electric cords, dimmers and switchers and fixed all on a wooden board. Finally we covered the lamps with gels of specific colors. And then we experienced what the kids must be feeling when they light those lamps for the first time (actually something the teachers should do first as we were told). But…the ahs and ohs will be the same!

We also learned about staging and blocking: the directions performers need. It looks all so simple when you watch the professional performers on a stage, but believe me it is not. In COO the jobs of the stage director and the music director are the only once the kids do not have, but are fulfilled by the classroom and music teachers. Nevertheless, we had to learn it as teachers. Those taking the part of future stage directors spent Saturday evening drawing sketches for performers from a short script we were given.  Some colorful sketches were developed. Those who were the performers in this lesson had to create a biography and we learned soon about subtexts to each written line. This was great fun and this exercise revealed that even a silent role has a lot of subtext. Mary Ruth was discovered to be an outstanding mime artist. But not only the artistic skills had to be developed, the administrative skills had to be taught as well. Time schedules had to be set up as they would occur at the schools. We learned the role of the Public Relations team and the historians, who would document the whole production process and the performances.

Finally the day got closer when we would have to show our skills. A process that would have taken place with the kids in some months or may be even half a year, we ran through in just five days. In the afternoon of day five - a Sunday - we were handed over sheets of papers like the kids would receive before the first audition. We had to check three professions we would like to do. I - a person interested in just about everything in musical theater - thought it would be certainly a good idea to make my crosses in jobs of three different fields. I checked stage design, PR and - performer. But, somehow I got it wrong; I thought we would really go through an audition for these three jobs. Wrong! In the afternoon of the sixth day, our jobs were announced. The performers were called at the end and when all jobs were handed over except the performers. I was chosen to be a performer! Oh, I love acting, though I had never had the chance to do it in front of an audience before in my life. I had somehow forgotten that I would have to sing as well. So my feelings varied from being very happy and somehow terrified, but in any case I was deeply impressed how much the whole group - now both companies together - were cheering me on, when it was announced I would be an actor.

The evenings before had been full of work as well, but this last night became a very long one.  The two groups, which were now separate opera companies, exchanged scripts.  We didn’t know what their story was about since we had worked with only our own story.  Danny gave his best to give us a first introduction to the music. I had to sing besides the repeating four chorus lines only two solo lines as the three other actress had and I took the title of the 'Opera' as my own one 'Where there is a will ,there  is a way'.

In the evening we worked out the biographies and subtexts and some really funny stuff came out of that. We had a lot of fun with the two composers of our opera company this evening, but also quite serious work to do. The costume and stage designers, with their carpenters and electricians, as well as the Public Relation managers and historians, which displayed their material in the lobby,  they all did a wonderful job overnight. Unbelievable what they produced in such a few hours. While Margie had now become the stage director of the COOP Opera Company and Shellie stayed as its music director with her group, Peter came as stage director to our Opera Soup Company and made a team with Danny as music director. The excitement was rising very high. We ran through several rehearsals in a very short amount of time – I was hoping I would not forget one of the lines I would have to say. Though for some moments I had the feeling I would never get together the singing, acting and speaking, I was finally extremely happy to be a performer.  And, when we had put on our costumes and finally the make-up artists had done their work, it was clear that there would be no way back.  And with the ongoing rehearsals even in this short time (at 3.15 p.m. was the performance), I gained a lot of security in what I was doing.

Well, the moment came and was over fast - and it was a big success! Though we had believed the audience (the writers of the play) might receive it differently, their laughter revealed that it had turned from a pretty sad story to quite a comedy.  Our opera 'Balancing Act' was more staged in the way our opera company had thought about when we were creating it. Anyway, both pieces were a lot of fun and a great success. A tremendous work had been done in the shortest time, which made everyone very proud of her/himself and of his/her company members. And all of us would have just liked to give the scene a second performance!

As result of this week at Princeton University with the Creating Original Opera Program I can just say, each school kid should once have a chance to participate in such an opera creating process and to experience the wonderful feeling of being a part of it, to feel its own enthusiasm and that of the mates and if it is up to his or her own personality to get the thrill of performing in front of an audience.

More information:
tel +1 212 769 7023 or 7026, e-mail: coo@operaed.org

contact for Germany:
tel. +49 6104 3431





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