Bravo! Brava! The Upper Elementary Opera Project
If you ask an eight-year-old if they like opera, chances are you’ll get an emphatic "no." So, how did my class end up spending a whole month studying a 150-year-old Italian opera set in 19th century Paris, and enjoying it? It’s all in the delivery. Opera, at its heart, is a story, and children love a good story.
Our venture into opera began with the discovery of the San Francisco Opera’s program for the season. We did not start with a predetermined curriculum, only the knowledge that Puccini’s La Boheme was the performance that we would take our class to see. Opera is rich with opportunities to teach across multiple subjects, but we decided to let the story take center stage.
Our class is made up of 15 wonderfully diverse learners, ages eight to 11 years old. In order to present the opera in a way they could all understand, we began with a visual provocation. I printed out images from past productions of La Boheme and pasted them to the center of a poster paper. Without any background knowledge of the story, students studied the images and made story predictions that they discussed with their classmates. They offered up theories about the characters based on their costumes and staging decisions—or in other words, they practiced the important skill of using supporting evidence from text or images to better understand character and plot development in fiction.
After heated debates about what was happening in these scenes, the class was eager to find out what was really going on and this led to a group reading of the opera synopsis.
Linking this activity to our curriculum goals, we focused our first reading on finding out more about the characters. Armed with highlighters, students were tasked with finding all the different names in the text. They created character lists and speculated about who each person was and what role they played in the opera. This led to an exploration of the plot—they dug into the text again and mapped out the scenes and created a story arc. From this exercise, they not only learned about the plot of La Boheme, but they strengthened their understanding of story structure that is applicable to many genres.
Our exploration and deep dive into La Boheme is a great example of how curriculum can be created as you go along, carefully taking into account student interest and community experiences, but still tightly paired with academic rigor and higher level objectives.
As the grand finale to our month of learning about story structure, characterization, voice types, themes in music, and costuming and set design, we went to see the live performance. The students sat, rapt, as the curtains went up and the conductor took his place in front of the orchestra. They leaned in and I heard whispers of, “That’s Mimi! She’s a soprano!” and “That’s Rodolfo, look he’s hiding the key because he loves her!” And as the curtains came down, our class erupted into a chorus of “Bravo!” and “Brava!”
After the performance, I asked the students to reflect on their experiences. The general consensus was that the opera was long, and sad, but they almost unanimously agreed they would love to go again. We are all excited to embark upon further learning, as next up, students will work on individual and group projects that take a closer look into an area of interest such as historical context behind the opera, costume and set design, or composition and music.