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!

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