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Opera Is a Class Act!


Curriculum Center

In an effort to enhance learning in all subjects, some teachers and school districts have adopted a musical medium -- opera! As students become acquainted with Aida and The Barber of Seville, they develop their understanding of music, language, and culture. One teacher who is infusing her own classroom with opera points out that it isn't necessary to be an opera aficionado to introduce pupils to Puccini! Included: Print and online resources for teaching opera in your classroom!

"Young children use their whole being when they express themselves musically," Paula Ifft-McGirr told Education World. "It is hard for them to sit still. They feel the rhythms and need to move. Young children also enjoy pretend play at this age. They like to dress up, be another character, use different voice inflections.

"Those things are all a part of language learning and also a natural part of opera," added Ifft-McGirr.

As a mom and a kindergarten teacher at Maple West Elementary School in Williamsville, New York, Ifft-McGirr knows young children. As a vocal performer herself, she knows music. The students in her class, called "Mrs. McGirr's Music Munchkins," get a thorough underpinning of creative arts -- most prominently, opera -- throughout the school year.

Why Opera?

"Learning opera helps increase language skills, teaches higher level thinking and creative problem-solving skills in real world situations, involves cooperative learning, teaches tolerance and understanding of other cultures, develops an appreciation for the arts, involves all learning styles, and stimulates the imagination."
--Paula Ifft-McGirr, kindergarten teacher


Ifft-McGirr didn't use opera as an integral part of classroom study until one of her students noticed a new book on the classroom's bookshelf. The book, authored by the famous opera soprano Leontyne Price, was a retelling of the Verdi opera Aida.

"When I read the book to my students, it was incomplete without the music," Ifft-McGirr explained. "So, I brought in the music and the libretto [text], and began a month-long study of Aida. In the end, the children wore costumes and created very simple sets -- mostly made out of large, hollow blocks -- to re-create this musical work of art."

"It is important to understand that opera is an excellent way to teach language because opera is literature that is alive," explained Ifft-McGirr. "Children can understand character development, setting, problems in stories ... all by actually participating in opera."

See the endbar to this article for a brief list of some literature Ifft-McGirr recommends for introducing opera.

"We start [our opera study] by listening to many different kinds of music, to open their ears to different forms of musical expression," said Ifft-McGirr. "I allow the children to laugh at the way the voices sound rather than restrict their impressions. We all try to sing like that. It is great fun! But as we listen more and more, the class learns about the different emotions (feelings) that the music and lyrics bring out to help tell the story.

"Sometimes the class wants to reproduce the opera in the classroom. Other times they want to write their own opera," Ifft-McGirr said. "Usually, the themes are simple ones, such as 'A Day in Kindergarten,' or they are based on stories they know, such as "The Three Little Pigs." The children help write the lyrics and music. We get older students to help as well. That has been fun and a great learning experience for all ages."

Why Opera?

"Students can and do learn to appreciate a complex art form with visual arts, dance, vocal and instrumental music, and dramatic literature. ... Opera also offers a way to make connections across disciplines. ... What better way than through the arts for students to realize that they are part of a larger tradition? Finally, there is the opportunity to experience a beautiful art form and to learn to be critical and thoughtful audience members."
--Paul King, New York City Opera


Paul King, the director of education for the New York City Opera, shares Ifft-McGirr's belief that opera provides learning experiences that transcend a single classroom subject.

"We are committed to providing multiple avenues of access to opera as an art form and to New York City Opera as an institution for teachers and students," said King. "Of course, we want to develop an audience for the future, but we also seek to make a direct connection with students and to de-mystify the art form. As a company, we produce engaging, adventurous productions. The goal of engagement and creating a sense of artistic adventure pervade our school programs as well."

The New York City Opera currently offers school programs for more than 12,000 students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Why Opera?

"To be completely and comprehensively educated means having a background in the arts. By introducing students to opera, we build and sustain cultural intelligence. ... Passing on knowledge and understanding about the power of opera to communicate universal themes, ideas, and emotions ultimately enhances and betters our society. ... [Opera] stretches students and teachers in directions they never thought possible." --Dr. Joseph Piro, New York City Public Schools


District 24 of the New York City Public Schools in Queens, New York, embarked on a partnership with the New York City Opera several years ago. The diverse district serves approximately 37,000 students who speak nearly 110 languages and dialects.

"The district's students have participated in a multi-level program of opera education -- all the way from learning about opera to creating it," explained Dr. Joseph Piro, district arts coordinator. "They work with artists from City Opera in learning many facets about opera."

Before the artists get to the schools, however, teachers trained by the City Opera education staff provide lessons about the opera being studied. Educators also receive a teaching guide that is customized for each opera.

The program gives students an opportunity to experience opera up close, said Piro. "An art form that was remote and unknown to them suddenly becomes accessible," he said. "They get to know great music and discover how this music really speaks to them. Opera is a truly interdisciplinary art form, and because of this, we have tried to strengthen the experience by integrating as many core content subjects as possible."

Piro added, "I remember one performance I saw of a school doing a puppet Magic Flute as part of the City Opera project. They tried to make the production as authentic as possible -- complete with dancing animals, flying scenery, and singing characters. It was a great experience for audience and performers."


The Metropolitan Opera Guild
This opera company helps teachers involve their students in the creation of original operatic pieces and performing them. The Met also offers study guides that correspond with matinee broadcasts.

The Washington Opera
Another opera company that welcomes students and assists in opera teaching endeavors is the Washington Opera. The Web site includes excerpts from NPR's Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z.

Los Angeles Opera
The Los Angeles Opera supports local arts programs with special matinees of children's operas for students as well as community-wide initiatives.

Ifft-McGirr Recommends Opera Books

"Opera-based storybooks are a great tool for a novice teacher who wants to use opera in the classroom," said Ifft-McGirr. She recommended a few of her class's favorites:

The Random House Book of Opera Stories (Random House Story Collections), retold by Adele Geras. This book shares the stories of eight operas, each with artwork created by a different illustrator.

Sing Me a Story: The Metropolitan Opera's Book of Opera Stories for Children, by Jane Rosenberg. This book by the Metropolitan Opera Company has 15 opera stories. Ifft-McGirr, who has used many of them, said that her class especially likes The Magic Flute.

The Pirates of Penzance, by Ward Botsford. This book about the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta is out of print, but used copies can still be purchased.