Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Winter Scenes Performance

Laura Koroski, Education Intern at Chicago Opera Theater

As the Education Intern, most of my work is behind-the-scenes. I have a number of times gotten into the three schools that host the Opera For All program, to observe and help in the classroom, on field trips, and with the Cinderhood performances. But as COT for Teens is a much smaller program that operates on a simpler platform, there's been no reason for me to be a support system.

So it wasn't until their Winter Scenes performance on November 30 at the Museum of Contemporary Art that I got to see what they'd been up to all fall. And they have achieved quite a lot. From being a bunch of teens brought together from all over the city, they've become one group, in social interactions as well as in performance. Though I don't have previous standards to compare to, I can only imagine the progress they've made in their singing and acting.

Their first piece, from Luisa Miller, proved that they weren't intimidated by foreign languages, even the complexities of singing in Italian. The Bell Chorus from Pagliacci was a sweet piece with wonderfully staged and executed crowd choreography. The girls performed a very amusing rendition of "It Can't be Possible" from Donizetti's Elixir of Love, and the boys followed with "Women, Women, Women" from The Merry Widow.

There were three songs from South Pacific, in preparation for the students' spring production. "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" was belted out with much sass, and followed by "There is Nothing Like a Dame," much to the amusement of the audience. The performance finished with a choral version of "Some Enchanted Evening," sung with such feeling that you had to have a heart of stone not to be moved by it. It was a fantastic performance, brilliantly directed by Chris Richard and Marta Johnson. I'm excited for what the students will give us in April with the full production of South Pacific!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Preparing for the Winter Preview

Amanda Compton, COT Teaching Artist at Reilly Elementary

This week at Reilly Elementary was both challenging and exhilarating. We worked with the students to prepare them for the upcoming Winter Preview on December 17 by practicing their solfege scale, a musical vocabulary song set to the melody of "Twinkle, twinkle little star," and began working on "Feliz Navidad," complete with dancing! Many of the children come from a Spanish background, so they were very excited about our song choice. Linden asked how her pronunciation was, and one little girl said with a shy smirk, "It's ok..."

As we near the end of the semester, we are beginning to lay the groundwork for our spring production. Our goal during these last class sessions is to ignite the kids' creativity in crafting their own storyline based on the theme they already invented, "college and high school students in New York.". So, we had them play a collaborative story improvisation game where we sat in a circle and each student built upon the story one sentence at a time. Tuesday's class had some trepidation at first, saying practically the same thing the student before them said, but their interest was piqued when someone introduced a love interest and suddenly the kids were wriggling in their seats in anticipation of their turn.

The highlight of this week was the performance of "Cinderhood," in which the OFA kids got to play a special part. They sang, "in a mixed up, turned around, jumbled, inside out story," to punctuate the characters' confusion on stage. The kids were incredibly excited, and told me how they had bragged to their friends about their part in the show. The Reilly violin students participated too! The show was a big hit, and during the question and answer session at the end, many of the students not enrolled in OFA expressed extreme interest in getting involved next semester. This program has clearly already made an impact at Reilly, and I am confident that our endeavors in the spring will only increase students' passion for learning about opera!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Commemorating Maggie Daley

Christopher Richard, COT for Teens Teaching Artist

This was our second to last rehearsal before our final performance, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. All of the students were fattened and lethargic from the feast just 2 days before. We had a lot of work to get done, last minute tweaking of scenes, catching up some students who might have missed something along the way and all the little details that make a scene come alive.

Unfortunately, we also learned about the passing of ASM’s beloved Maggie Daley. She was the heart of ASM and an inspiration to all. We were asked to participate in the public wake that was going to happen the very next day at the Cultural Center. We polled the kids to see how many might be available and if it was feasible to have our group represented. COT for Teens was one of Mrs. Daley’s favorite programs, but it was still an honor to be represented. It seemed after polling that we would have at least a handful of students and a decent combination of voices.

We arrived at Gallery at 10am Sunday morning. We were told of the possible schedule for the day and finally went across the street to mourn and celebrate the wonderful life of Mrs. Daley. We were one of 3 groups from ASM that provided music for the family and the masses of people streaming in to extend their condolences. The groups rotated throughout the afternoon and we sang 3 times. We sang the lovely chorus ‘Ti desta Luisa’ from Verdi’s ‘Luisa Miller’ -- after all, Mrs. Daley loved opera! We also sang our choral version of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific.’

As we were singing I couldn’t help but notice how appropriate and comforting those choices were. The Daley family and the staff of ASM were so thrilled with how the afternoon went. We finally left about 3pm. It was a long day, yet the students remained composed and professional throughout. We were proud of them and humbled to be part of such an event.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Songwriting at Clinton with Adam Busch

Lisa Golda, COT Teaching Artist at Clinton & Hampton Elementary Schools

Today we completed songs in all three classes with the help of visiting artist Adam Busch, a fantastic and fun composer and lyricist! Mr. Coor's class, which was just decreased by half to about 15 kids, completed their song "Lost until Lunch" about a tornado going wild in the museum! Mrs. Lee's class, which had opera last year as well, finished their song, "Alone on a Submarine", but did not work any further on "Night of the Living Bodies" with Adam. And Mr. Lee's class spent a lot of time finishing "Devil Twins".

This activity involves rhyming, constructing a narrative, writing sentences that have the same cadence(# of syllables). All three classes helped to create gestures, or choreography, for their songs, and we practiced it several times in preparation for the Winter preview. All classes were asked to memorize their lyrics. I also told them to practice their choreography, and to draw a picture of the theme of their song (a tornado, a submarine, a zombie, a devil twin) for potential use as a t-shirt design.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Performance of Talents

Amanda Compton, COT Teaching Artist at Reilly Elementary

During the past few weeks, the students at Reilly have done mostly group-based performing and singing exercises. But this week we decided to give them the chance to show us what they consider to be their own individual "talent." About 20 kids had the courage to take the stage in front of their peers and share their passion.

We had a very diverse showing of talents including singing, rapping, piano, dancing, and poetry. Taylor Swift was a popular performance choice, and was well received by the audience (they usually sang along with those performances!). One of the most impressive performances was a reading by one little girl of her own original poem. After she read it, the class voted to use it as the lyrics for one of the songs in the spring opera. This particular girl has been quite shy and quiet the past few weeks, and I can't begin to imagine how proud she must be to have her classmates affirm her talent so strongly.

A few kids weren't sure what they wanted to perform, but they were so eager to take the stage that they volunteered even when they didn't know what they wanted to do! Their desire to express and be a part of the fun was clear. Hopefully during the course of this class, we can enable them to embrace performing not as something that is scary, but rather as an opportunity to share with a receptive audience something that gives them joy.

The talent show was an excellent way for us to identify the students that already have some performing skills, and a great way for those students who are new to performing to get some inspiration from their peers. We had a very good turnout of parents who came to support their child's interest with video cameras and applause, and we even had them participate in an acting game the children have been practicing at the end of class. In a school with little funding for the arts, it was clear that Opera for All serves as the crucial outlet these children need to gain confidence in themselves and foster their creative instincts.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Looking Outside the Box at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Kimberly Chin, COT Teaching Artist at Clinton & Hampton Elementary Schools
Laura Koroski, Education Intern at Chicago Opera Theater

Last Friday, Ms. Ochoa's class from Hampton Elementary visited the Museum of Contemporary Art. Before the trip, we were hesitant about how it would turn out. What kind of inspiration could students get from modern art? How would they turn that into an opera?

But our fears turned out unfounded. We had two docents for the field trip, and they were fantastic guides, helping the students to see beyond the physically bizarre creations in front of them. By complete coincidence, they just happened to have the same ideas in mind as we did. Their ultimate aim seemed to be to get the kids thinking about space, but there were a number of steps to get there. The guide had our group stop to look at a piece that the museum had just received, a miniature village model which to us looked like a Vegas hotel strip. “What is this?” she asked the students. “A model of a town.” “Could you go inside it?” They agreed you could. “What would you be, inside it?” “I would be rich and famous,” one student stated, and everyone laughed. “What would you be famous for?” the guide asked. “I dunno, I’d just be famous. And everyone would want my autograph.” The guide tried to draw them back to the model. “Think about it, though. How would you go inside that village? Would you shrink yourself?” A hand was raised. “Maybe you’d make the village bigger,” one girl said. “Or maybe you could imagine yourself in the village?”

To further explore the concept of space, our group made a circle. “It’s not just artwork that can change a space,” said our guide. “People can change space as well, and we do it all the time. How are we, right now in this circle, changing the space? How would we change the space if we made a smaller circle? A line?” These were simple exercises, yet when paired with deep questions, produced some amazing discussion.

The docent led the students in our group from simple observations to more nuanced answers to complex, open-ended questions. At a piece composed of stacked mirrors in a corner, they talked about the placement of the light in the creation of the piece, and how it resembled a stairway, perhaps to the heavens. What looked like a doorway led to a discussion of how simple and everyday a door is, until the docent asked “What could make this door special? Where does it lead?” and the kids were off using their imaginations, thinking of the new and fantastical rooms and places and worlds it could lead to.

After a tour of just of few of the hundreds of pieces the museum has, the students were given the opportunity to deal with space themselves – by creating their own piece of contemporary art. They were given a starting template of a three-dimensional cardboard corner, lots of materials, and told just to go. At first, they were hesitant, asking questions about what they could do. But as time went on, they opened up, and it was wonderful to walk around the room and watch them figure out that they could do whatever they wanted.

Some people say that today’s students don’t know how to think creatively and use their imaginations. Perhaps that’s true. But I think that using your imagination is a skill like any other, and it has to be taught, or at the very least, introduced. And it was wonderful to be present at the MCA and watch the Hampton fourth graders start to learn how to think outside the box. I hope some wonderful things will come out of it for their opera.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Masterclass with Nathan Gunn

Marta Johnson, COT for Teens Teaching Artist

On Thursday October 27th Nathan and Julie Gunn visited our COT for Teens classroom. We were privileged to hear stories about traveling and singing internationally from Mr. and Mrs. Gunn. Our students were inspired to learn about the real world of opera and life on stage.

To start the visit, our students sang Ti Desta Luisa from Luisa Miller by Verdi. Mr. and Mrs. Gunn loved their singing and were especially impressed with the Italian diction. Most of our students have never sung in a foreign language before, so this encouragement was welcomed by all parties.

Our students had the chance to ask questions of Mr. Gunn and they had some good ones:
What inspired you to sing opera? (Hearing the Magic Flute as a child.) How much do you practice each day? (About four hours!) Do you have any special tips for good breathing? (It’s like blinking your eyelids: if you think about it too much, it gets complicated.)

Both Mr. and Mrs. Gunn emphasized that having a beautiful voice is a gift, one to be respected and treated well. And this means practicing and being diligent in your preparation. One of our students was so inspired by these remarks that he told me he was going home and memorizing all of the Bell Chorus from Pagliacci, which we are currently learning. And indeed the next rehearsal he sang most of it from memory!

A native of South Bend, Indiana, Nathan Gunn has built a reputation of being one of the most exciting and in-demand baritones of the day. He has appeared in internationally renowned opera houses such as the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Seattle Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Paris Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Glyndebourne Opera Festival, Bilboa, and the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. In addition to his many roles, Mr. Gunn is a distinguished concert performer and a frequent interpreter of new works. His solo album, Just Before Sunrise, was released with Sony/BMG Masterworks, and he can also be heard on many operatic recordings. He is also a tenured professor of voice at the University of Illinois. Audiences can see Mr. Gunn in the role of Ravenal in Show Boat at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in February and March, 2012.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Mixed-Up, Turned Around Opera

Linden Christ, COT Teaching Artist at Reilly Elementary

Chicago Opera Play House performed a wonderful musical called Cinderhood at Hampton and Dewitt Clinton Elementary School on Oct 24th & 26th. This touring children's opera company was founded in 2005 by Linden Christ, who is the Manager of Education and Outreach for Chicago Opera Theater. COT teaching artists taught 8 measures to the Opera For All students to sing during the performance, "It's a mixed-up, turned around, jumbled, inside-out story; a jumbled, inside-out, mixed-up, turned around tale." The students loved performing their bit for their peers at the In-School performance. COT's teaching artist, Adam Busch, who wrote the musical and toured it around New York, was also the accompanist for our school performances.

COT teaching artist Kimberly Chin played multiple roles as Little Red Riding Hood, Wicked-Step Mother, and Fairy Godmother. And COT teaching artist Linden Christ played the roles of Cinderella, the Queen, and Little Red's Mother. The students were inspired seeing their opera teaching artists perform for them.

After the performance, Chicago Opera Play House held a Question and Answer session in which many of the students were curious about Adam's role of creating the mixed-up story about Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. Some older students wanted to know whatever happened in the end to the wolf and the wicked-step mother.

Reilly Elementary School will have their In-School performance of Cinderhood on Friday, December 2nd at Noon. Learn more about Chicago Opera Play House and the musical Cinderhood here.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Beginning to play at Reilly

Amanda Grimm, COT Teaching Artist at Reilly Elementary

Although we got off to a late start this year, things are already taking off at Reilly in our violin classes! The last two weeks have been both fun and educational and because these students are so smart, we're moving along at a rapid pace. We've already covered the parts of the violin and bow and have talked about how we make sound. Last week, everyone was assigned an instrument and we practiced holding our violins in rest position. This is a crucial first step - rest position is the safest way in which to hold our violins when we are not playing.

Because teaching twenty-eight kids how to play the violin simultaneously can prove to be a bit of a challenge, I'm really lucky to have the help and support of Linden and two of the Reilly teachers. As we progress with the fundamentals of violin playing, we'll also be doing some listening to standard repertoire (last week, in the spirit of Halloween, we listened to some "scary" music by Shostakovich and Stravinsky). Also on the docket is an introduction to rhythm through different variations on the song "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

I'm very excited for my violin classes at Reilly this year. I hope the kids are excited too! Learning the violin can improve coordination, discipline, and listening and hearing skills. It will also provide exposure to a whole world of music with which the students may not already be familiar. And we'll definitely be having fun along the way!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Planting the seeds of a possible future

Lisa Golda, COT Teaching Artist at Clinton & Hampton Elementary Schools

Last week, our Clinton students went on a field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. This year's opera will be based on themes of adventure and discovery, and we thought a field trip would be a relevant and inspiring experience for them! The day was delightful, of course, filled with "fake tornadoes" (what they called the tornado simulator), hatching chicks, a maze of mirrors, an actual U-boat submarine, a traveling circus, wind tunnels and rainbow rooms and static electricity spheres and other WOW-inspiring exhibits too numerous to name. In follow-up with the kids the next week, we worked with them to process their experiences and to choose themes for songs that would based on those experiences, as well as imagined events that could have happened in the museum.

I could not keep up with the flow of ideas that ensued once the kids understood the "what if" directive. What if the submarine floated out to sea with only kids on it? What if the artful cadavers came to life, a la Night of the Living Dead? (Night of the Living Bodies was the title that student suggested, and which stuck, a nice nod to the classic horror flick.) What if the images of ourselves taken by the museum photographer came to life and tried to take our place in our own lives? What imaginations! Real-life scenarios that will be turned into songs for their opera include getting "lost" and reuniting with the group in the eating area; a song with the working title "Lost Until Lunch", and being disoriented in the museum's "mirror maze".

I'm so enjoying working with the kids to translate their everyday experiences into the end result of an opera, rather than imposing already-extant material on them. It is highly effective, in terms of getting them invested in the project, and also a very direct introduction to the creative process from start to finish. And kids are just so creative, when given the opportunity.

I was struck by the comments of two adults affiliated with Clinton; one, a field trip chaperone, and one, an office staffperson with whom I chatted this week before the field trip follow up class. During the field trip, I attached myself to a particular Clinton group and followed them as they progressed through the musem, taking pictures and asking the kids what they thought about this and that. I stepped in to help the chaperone as he encouraged the kids to enter a wind capsule a few at a time, rather than packing themselves in like soon-to-be-disheveled sardines. We watched the kids scream and laugh and pound on the plastic walls as they were buffeted by high winds.

With a smile on his face, the chaperone suddenly said that these trips were important because the kids, as they were exposed to all these different technologies and sciences and disciplines, might decide that they wanted to be astronauts, or scientists, etc.. when they grew up, and that they would then "participate in their communities". Screaming and silliness and static electricity balls aside, he perceived the trip as planting the potential seeds of their futures. Yes, indeed. How sad that, at one of our schools, due to probationary status, the kids must take a "virtual field trip" on which to base their opera. They can't have life-expanding experiences like field trips because they might not pass a benchmark if any test prep time is lost. There is something wrong with that picture. Sometimes, though, we can't see our immediate realities, our current snapshots, or the fruits they may eventually bear, lost as we are in benchmarks or funding issues or, simply, our own awareness.

My other moment was shared with a Clinton secretary in her sixties or seventies who was monitoring the sign-in table the week after the trip. She had seen last year's opera and asked what we were doing this year, and she shared her own memories of touring the famous Prado museum in Spain as a child. Picassos, Monets, all of that meant nothing to her at that age, she said; she had no context for it as a middle-schooler, the same age as this year's students. She recalled other students' parents, she guessed, telling them to emphasize those masters in their homework essays after her trip, and also remembered her parents scolding her for relating seemingly commonplace elements of her experience in her own essay. In her child's eye, she said, she remembered going up and down the stairs, over and over, more than anything else. She put that in her essay, and her teacher gave her an A, she said, because she did the assignment: she related her experience. But, she said; now, so many years later, she can marvel at the masterpieces she saw then, and appreciate them and the impact that visit had on her. Seeds were planted.

We never know whether the seeds we plant in the course of this program will end up in maturity. All we see are the initial sprouts of creativity and excitement; at the end of the year, an opera, a blossom produced during such a small part of the life cycle of our students. But I hope, indeed, believe, that our kids will have experiences that will expand their sense of the possible and, as our chaperone put it, inspire ideas for new life directions, even if, at the time, it seems like a lot of "going up and down."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Just beginning at Gallery 37

Christopher Richard, COT for Teens Teaching Artist

The first couple weeks of COT for Teens have gone even better than expected! We are one of the few programs that have a full class roster in ASM.

The students we have are overall of a higher caliber than we've had before and it shows in the level of work we are able to do. We have been working on The Bell Chorus from I Pagliacci by Leoncavallo. So that they have a more immediate connection to the text, we have chosen to sing The Bell Chorus in English. They seem to like it but it's a little tricky. We need to do some more musical work on it before we can start to get it on it's feet. We've also tackled the opening chorus from Luisa Miller by Verdi. This one we decided to keep the Italian to stretch them a bit. The language hasn't been that difficult for most and it helps that everyone sings together all the time. Part of the class has been spent building the ensemble as a team doing some name games, theater games and sharing of experiences thus far in the class.

Both Marta and I are really encouraged by everyone's attitude and commit to the program to make it a most successful term!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Imagination and Experience

Kimberly Chin, COT Teaching Artist at Clinton & Hampton Elementary Schools

This is our second week at Clinton and first week (2 classes) at Hampton. They are still so excited for us to be there. I believe they are having so much fun and they will gain so much experience and learning opportunities by the end of this year. We have one class at Clinton and one class at Hampton that are experienced in this program. To think of things that will be more challenging for them, yet easy enough for the newer students in the class, may be challenging. We do not want them to get bored mid-year.

In the newer classes, it is surprising to see how shy and how little they know how to use their imagination and creativity. On Wednesday, I did a lesson on exactly that, imagination, still along the lines of our theme, adventure. We did a game where we pick up an object and imagine it as something else, then explain how we would use it to help us on an adventure. For example, I would pick up a pen, then say this is a wand that I will use to protect myself against the evil wizard on my adventure. Many students would pick up a pen and say, this is a pen. The second part would sometimes be imaginative: This is a pen that I can write something down and it would appear. On a brighter note, the more experienced classes, for the most part, did use quite a bit of imagination in this activity. One student picked up a broken part of a balloon and said, "This is a cap that if you put it on, you will become hairy from head to toe and can disguise yourself as an animal."

This Friday, Clinton will be going to the Museum of Science and Industry. I've asked them to not only log the "cool" things they saw that would be good for their opera but think of "what if" scenarios as well; "what if the tornado broke loose?" Hampton will be going on their field trip on November 4th.

I think this will be a great year filled with many fun and imaginative adventures!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

First Day at Clinton

Lisa Golda, COT Teaching Artist at Clinton & Hampton Elementary Schools

This week's sessions were a great start to what I expect will be a wonderful year for myself and teaching artist partner Kim Chin at Clinton School. We're working with three classes this year, 3rd - 5th graders, and two of our teachers and one of our classes are returning to the program. It will be really exciting to see how our repeat students contribute to the curriculum, being experienced composers and performers! Many of these children offered detailed definitions of "Opera" and all were excited to see us again! Having teachers that have experienced and obviously enjoyed OFA (Opera for All) will also be a wonderful positive variable in this year's experience!

We started the classes with an introductory names song sung to the tune "Skip to My Lou". This is an opportunity to learn names, as well as to get the students singing right away and understanding that Opera Class is different from their other classes! The kids responded enthusiastically and happily, without shyness. Next, we passed an inflatable beach ball with questions such as "What do you dream about?" and "Where would you go if you could go anywhere in the world?" Students had to catch the ball, introduce themselves, and then toss it to the next student once they answered the question. This exercise got them standing and out of their desks, and also gave them a taste of cooperation and self-control similiar to that needed onstage as they tossed the ball to each other. Answering the questions helped us to learn a little about them and begin establishing a rapport; something that teachers in previous years have stressed as an important factor in classroom atmosphere and participation.

Next week, we'll meet our students at Hampton; a new school for me, as Clinton was this week for Kim! Can't wait!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Teaching to the Test, or Creative Initiative?

Lisa Golda, COT Teaching Artist

I’ll never forget the unexpected response we received last year after inviting Opera for All students to participate in a creative project intended to enhance their understanding of an opera plot.

We instructed students to make a collage of a scene from the opera, and showed them an example. We presented them with the materials creative dreams are made of: colorful construction paper, glitter, sticky “jewels”, patterned backgrounds, 64 Crayolas, magazines to cut . . .items my inner child found tantalizing, but which these kids found perplexing. “What do we do?” they said, confusion and very real anxiety evident in their faces and voices. “Is this right?” they asked, holding up forlorn, virtually naked pieces of paper or results that were exact copies of the example we provided.

The kids didn’t know how, were afraid to, create.

As many of us know, “teaching to the test” is now the MO of our school system. It’s a well-intentioned mindset, unavoidable in schools that are designated as failing. Of course, some standards are necessary so that teachers and students can assess their progress towards basic learning benchmarks, and tests are a traditional way of measuring mastery.

At the same time, arts curriculums, the impact of which is less easily quantified, are increasingly cut, viewed as fluff compared to reading, writing, and arithmetic, especially since many students are reaching high school age without competencies in those vital skills.

Nonetheless, that anxious, tragic response, coming from 5th and 6th graders, their need to be told exactly what to do, and, especially, their initially negative emotional reaction to what should have been a joyous activity, all led me to question their ultimate ability, basic skills notwithstanding, to participate as adults in an economy that has moved away from manufacturing and towards innovation.

Now more than ever, our kids need experience in creative, imaginative brain-work. How many job ads read: Wanted: someone who thinks inside the box? Wanted: workers who require constant and comprehensive direction?

This year, we asked Opera for All students to increase their involvement in the creative process. In cooperation with CAPE guest artists Adam Busch, Sonja Henderson, and the late great Mary Scruggs of Second City , we guided them through lyric writing, composing, staging/choreography, and props construction. We learned to ask kids at every step of the way; What do you think?

And at first, they didn’t have answers. How do I play with words in a way that leads to rhymed couplets? Why should one pitch be preferable to any other pitch in this line of a song? What gesture represents excitement? What is brainstorming?

The students eventually realized that there were no right answers; only exciting possibilities. They learned how to ask, not: “Is this right?”, but rather: “What if. . .?”

And then we could hardly keep up with the flow of enthusiastic creation.

Although it would often have been easier, and faster, to just tell the kids exactly what to do, allowing them to create the opera themselves has resulted in enthusiastic participation, a faster learning curve, and artistic authenticity and integrity in the resulting opera, "School Rules".

If creative initiative, our essential intellectual vitality, is repeatedly stifled (as I fear it may be by elimination of arts curriculum and “teaching to the test”), learning can be reduced to rote memorization and mandated drudgery, rather than independent discovery. Children may not learn how to learn, given that so much of learning comes either from asking: How? Why? What if?, from experimenting, or from the desire to have the ability to find one’s own answers through reading, writing, and arithmetic. Or physics, or philosophy, or history. . .

At this point in the school year, we have in the past sometimes had issues with memorization, failure to commit to the process, and an overall lack of enthusiasm perhaps not unlike that which leads students to fail in their regular academic courses. This year, we are experiencing the opposite.

“What if I do a slide to center on this line of the song?” we are asked. “How about I dress in disco clothes for this song?” a child suggests. “Can we all fall down when we are talking about tripping on our baggy pants?” the boys demand. “Can I make a poster with my sketches for the opera?” “Why don’t we add some music here?” “Can I do a solo?”

Telling, in a different way: “When is the opera, I want my grandma/dad/mom/aunt to come?”

We’re done, we have to tell them. Our opera has a due date determined by the performance and there comes a time when we have to “finish” our work of art. But we don’t have to be done creating and learning. In fact, it seems to me that once people of any age experience the sense of limitless possibility that comes from creativity, they return to it again and again; both through artistic activity and through applying that open-ended, exploration-oriented mentality to new learning frontiers in every discipline.

School, when it fosters independent initiative, creative thinking, and a love of discovery, can indeed, as our opera title suggests, “Rule”.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

COT for Teens performs at the Gala

Chicago Opera Theater honored COT for Teens on Sunday, March 6th at their annual Gala at Carnivale. Over the last decade, Chicago Opera Theater has worked with hundreds of teenagers to provide an artistic outlet. The program originated through individual partnerships with two high schools, Curie on the south side and Schurz on the northwest side. Students from these two schools were integral to the creation and performance of COT’s annual Education and Outreach productions, notably Benjamin Britten’s Noah’s Flood in 2001.

The program codified six years ago when COT entered into a partnership with the City of Chicago’s After School Matters initiative, now drawing in students from CPS high schools all over the city. Each year, students from diverse backgrounds and neighborhoods come together to study and create opera. For some, this marks the first experience with singing and opera as they attend schools with no music or art offerings. And for others, it is an extension on a young interest in singing. Regardless of background and experience, all of these students come to us with eagerness to explore a new art form and spread their wings. For three hours a day, three days a week, the COT for Teens students immerse themselves in what we love: opera.

The program culminates in the spring with their own production. This year COT For Teens will present a condensed version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, an excerpt from which you will hear shortly. This program instills artistry and appreciation in not only tomorrow’s opera-goers, but tomorrow’s opera stars, as well. 10 of the 30 COT for Teens students were featured at the Gala under the direction of Christopher Richard and Marta Johnson.

The transition that each student goes through from the beginning of the program- where some are completely unfamiliar with opera and singing- to performing in a production that would make even the toughest critic get on their feet, is astounding. And interpersonally, the students grow, too. Our students gain confidence in themselves and take great pride in being part of such a special team. The typical after school ritual of TV is replaced with this incredible creative outlet that is inspirational.

Every year a handful of our students decide to pursue careers in music. Our alumni have gone on to schools such as the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, DePaul University and even Eastman School of Music in New York. And regardless if they pursue music as a career, each of these amazing students come out of our program with greater self-respect and confidence--qualities that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

One of the high school performers texted this message that night to director, Chris Richard. "Thank you so much for tonight!!!! It was truly an inspiration and a reminder as to why I want to be a musician! This is a night I will never forget and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity! Tonight truly was the greatest experience I've ever had!"

Friday, March 4, 2011

Advice to Artists

Lisa Golda, COT Teaching Artist

Artists often hear the refrain: write/paint/act what you know. The theory behind the admonition is that it takes a gifted performer or other artist to interpret and translate a life experience that they themselves have never had.

This year, Opera for All students are proving this sage artistic advice to be correct with their incredible investment in this year's process and the authenticity of the piece they have created. Our students have written the words and music for their own opera, "School Rules", as well as created large props for the production. In the past, we've taught them excerpts from classic operas and classical songs which were set in a script that retold an operatic libretto at a kid level. They enjoyed this, but we spent a lot of time making connections for them between historic material and its context in the opera we were studying, and how this might be relevant to them, today. This was sometimes difficult for our younger students. Our new approach has made so much difference in the way the students approach the project! Their enthusiasm and excitement is positively amazing.

To begin, the late great Mary Scruggs of Second City worked with our students and teaching artists to create lyrics to songs based on our central themes: legacy, culture, and heritage. One of COT's mainstage operas this season, Machover's Death and the Powers, addresses these concepts by telling the story of a man who immortalizes himself after death by placing his consciousness in a machine.

Our students made these heady themes their own by translating them (with help of inquiry questions) into situations and lyrics they could understand: treasures and heirlooms brought from home; foods and clothing, which can be a part of cultural heritage; and things that happen in school, such as lending advice to younger classmates, disobeying the rules, and other interactions that can contribute to the legacy one leaves behind. The theme of legacy has been especially poignant given that Mary passed away suddenly. The children seem to understand that her legacy to them is, in part, the lyrics they wrote with her.

These charming songs, which include an ode to pizza, a chocolate milk group number, and groovy tune about trendy clothes, were then set to music by the kids with the help of talented teaching artist and composer Adam Busch. Next, they created props; in this case, giant costumes of food and family treasures designed by visiting artist Sonja Henderson. Their excitement as they made connections between the props and their song lyrics was wonderful! Building their opera from the ground up has made them incredibly invested in the project.

We're almost done teaching all the students the songs from other schools; each class has contributed about two songs to the project, which means that they then have to learn six more that students at other schools wrote (four schools are participating in writing the opera). Their curiosity about the other students' work is evidenced by their focus when we are teaching them the songs; they really appreciate that the music and words they are learning are a "work of art" because they have put in that work themselves. They respect the process accordingly.

As we've taught the rest of the songs, we've let the students know the context for their work in the opera libretto, which was conceptualized by teaching artists Kim Chin, Linden Christ, and Lisa Golda, with input from our intern Anna Solomon. Based on this discussion, Lisa wrote a few short dialogue scenes to tie all the students' songs together into a "day in the life" of a student following a TA brainstorming session, using ideas from cut songs when possible. Now we will complete the process by staging and directing the opera with our young performers, who can hardly contain their excitement about this final step. The kids will also learn two dances.

The kids are overcoming natural shyness and clamoring to audition for solos. They are suggesting staging ideas to us. They are creating artwork to be used as a t-shirt design for the show. The more we allow them to direct the process, the more initiative they seem to take. Their whole-hearted participation, demonstrated with classroom focus, laughter, joyful singing, questions about teaching artists who are not present that day, and devotion to the tasks we are presenting them with, is a joy. They are writing/acting/singing/drawing/dancing what they know, and in the process, learning that opera can be a relevant and accessible art form, which is one of our curriculum goals. I can't wait for the day that "School Rules" opens!

Friday, February 11, 2011

From the Composer

Adam Busch, COT Teaching Artist - Composer

What a FUN-tastic time we had at Calmeca, Clinton and Hampton schools!! We laughed...a TON, and learned even more!!!

Using our 'music meter' (an octave scale)--the kids were able to select notes, 1 through 8, to create AMAZING melodies. Their thought process was very clear. They identified the story each lyric was telling, then matched the rise and fall of the notes with the emotions and key words of the lyric--even making edits for meter where neccessary.

Unbelievably, through all of our laughing, we completed the songs and all are strikingly unique. In just 3 short sessions of 45 minutes the students created a total of seven songs. From the funky "Clothes were Groovy" disco, to the demanding "Chocolate Milk song", to the cravings of "I Can't Wait for Dessert", and the joys of "Pizza Day".

What a great program! It will be exciting now for these kids to learn and share their songs AND perform them in May!!

Cheers to all the participants!!!!