Every day, I reaffirm how strange life really is. Take my first volunteering session. I flew into a diva rage, flung M&M packs everywhere, slammed Cio-Cio San, pranced around the room like a bird, declared that I had stabbed someone, morphed into Cinderella's step-sister, and then, for all of that, got community service hours. And I'll admit: I had the time of my life. So, it goes without saying that I returned for the second volunteering session.
My fellow Opera Campers weren't there this time, but Mariana Silva, the Education Programs Assistant, brought in a whole bunch of teenaged friends. Carmen Recker thanked all of us for being there and briefed us on what would happen that night. In the background, we could hear some singers rehearsing in another room, which was getting me really excited.
I soon diverted my attention from the voices, though, because the presentations were starting. The first one was Sean Mulstein's about one of my favorite operas, Tosca. It was created for in-school Opera Clubs. He was enthusiastic and well-paced. He talked a little about Tosca, and then moved onto the activity: Tosca jeopardy. He divided us into three teams: Team Tosca, Team Mario, and Team Scarpia. For every question, each team would send a representative up to the front. If their teams knew the answer, the representatives would raise their hands. It sounds relatively docile, but the intensity skyrocketed. We were dashing back and forth to communicate, not-so-discreetly whispering answers. The highlight was the Daily Double. The slide pronounced, “Name this aria.” As he hit Play, we braced ourselves for the gloomy blue chords of “E Lucevan le Stelle or the crisp notes of “Recondita Armonia.” Then, without warning, Carly Rae Jepsen bleated out of the speakers, “Hey, I just met you, And this is crazy, But here's my number, So call me, maybe?” I was simultaneously thoroughly confused and laughing my heart out. Needless to say, we all loved the activity. It was interactive, and the questions were challenging—well, aside from “Name this aria.”
We then moved on to the seedier world of Don Giovanni, as presented to us by Stephanie Wilson. The presentation is for eighth graders, and she spoke in a very direct, natural, candid manner. As for the activity, it was hilarious. Again, we got into groups, and each group was assigned a character. Our task was to write messages to any characters we wanted to. (We can text Don Giovanni! We can Facebook message Donna Elvira! Who says opera is stuffy and pretentious?) My group was poor Donna Anna. After briefly staring at the blank page, we composed an e-mail regarding funereal arrangements for Il Commendatore. After some more thought, we wrote a Facebook message directed to the other women, warning them to stay away from Don Giovanni—apparently because he's dangerous, but actually because he's ours. Lastly, we wrote a tweet to the big cheese himself, and it went like this: “@Don Giovanni: You're a jerk. #JustKidding #TiAmo.” All done with our messages, we read them out loud.
For me, though, the activity didn't end there. It got me thinking about what nasty things I would say if I could text opera villains. And that, I think, is why the game was so effective. It made me continue thinking. (But seriously. Somebody give me Pinkerton's number.)
After the Don Giovanni presentation, David Yaroslavsky stepped up to deliver his presentation about The Flying Dutchman, intended for tenth graders. He was clear and casual as he introduced the opera and the activity. His game worked like this: there was a basket filled with slips of paper. Each of the slips had a word or phrase related to the opera, like “Seven years,” “German,” and even “Pirates of the Caribbean.” We would get into three groups. The groups would take turns sending up a person, who would draw out a slip and describe the word or phrase on it. Once his or her group guessed the word or phrase correctly, he or she would draw another slip. This would keep going until time ran out. Each slip the group had gotten through would count as a point. The group with the most points would win. The first round went on until we ran out of slips. Then, Mr. Yaroslavsky tossed all of the slips back in and began Round 2. The rules for Round 2, he explained, would be different. When describing what was on the slips, we could only use one word. Well, we started getting very confused, using vague hand gestures and glancing around helplessly. Some of us were really clever, though. One person up front glanced at the slip and called out “Heavy!” Miraculously, a group member immediately answered “Leitmotif!” Just when we thought we were getting good at it, though, Round 3 started. And in Round 3, no words were allowed. At all. We flailed our arms and twisted our faces into various expressions, going crazy trying to make ourselves understood. One of the funniest moments was when someone read the slip and then pointed at Ray Busmann, one of the educators. We started rapid-fire guessing, but every single answer received a shaking head. In despair, someone called out, “Johnny Depp?” Finally, another person got the correct answer: German. Mr. Busmann, though, was too elated to hear. “Who said Johnny Depp?” he gloated. “Who said Johnny Depp?!”
Since we had gotten through three presentations, it was time to take a break. After that, it was back to work with Mr. Busmann's presentation on Don Giovanni. Its target audience was tenth grade. He was absolutely hilarious—confident, assured, and humorously raw. He chose several of us to be Don Giovanni characters and proceeded with his Jerry Springer-style “talk show.” First, he gave a dramatic speech about the lives and loves of men and women. Then, he called the characters up one by one, playing corresponding music as they sat down. As the audience, we got to cheer or boo as he put them through merciless questioning. “Would you ever be faithful to one woman forever?” he asked our Don Giovanni at one point. Giovanni replied with a grin, “If there were only one fish left in the sea.” Of course, we howled with studio laughter. At last, with only two minutes left, Mr. Busmann thanked his interviewees and delivered his closing speech. He pontificated once more about the sorry romances of mortals and said goodbye to the audience.
The whole thing was so funny that it's impossible to forget, but there are several other elements that I think made the presentation so effective. It engaged the audience the whole time, since we got to react to everything that happened. Also, Mr. Busmann chose marvelous selections from Don Giovanni to introduce the characters, and as the participants strode up to their seats, they started moving to the melody. They had gotten inside the music and the music had gotten inside them.
The next activity was on Madame Butterfly. It was created by Eduardo Mollinedo-Pinon, and the target audience was sixth grade. After speaking for a minute or so, he gave us our imaginary scenario: we had to explain a certain Madame Butterfly character to a friend via messaging. The message would be in haiku format, with five syllables in the first and third lines and seven syllables in the second. He divided us into small groups and assigned each group a character. Our group got Butterfly, and the others got either Pinkerton or his American wife, Kate. Mr. Mollinedo-Pinon's assignment seemed pretty simple, since there were only three lines. But that was exactly the problem. How to summarize that huge, complex story in only seventeen syllables? We stared at the paper for a long time. Eventually, we managed the task of reduction, conceiving a very depressing poem. We all read our finished haikus out loud. I really didn't expect that wide variety of style, content, and word choice—some poems were casual and lighthearted; others, like ours, were just tragic. I didn't realize how open the project really is. I think it'll work wonderfully with sixth graders.
Like the previous volunteering night, this night closed with a Cinderella activity. This one, though, was created by Rachel Staples for AP level 12th graders. And this one just happened to be a dating game. Before the main activity began, she talked a little about Cinderella, her speaking both candid and matter-of-fact. Then, she asked the men to imagine that they were the prince of Los Angeles—what kind of girl would they take to prom? She turned to the ladies and asked us what traits we would like in a man. When we finished this exercise, she picked one of us volunteers to be Prince Ramiro, and selected three more of us, including me, to be Cinderella and her stepsisters. Without our Prince hearing, we sorted out who would be which character. Prince Ramiro, back turned and oblivious to our identities, began questioning us: he asked about matters such as what we'd do with large sums of money and how we would treat a beggar. Finally, at the end, he was asked to guess which one of us was Cinderella. Yes—it was me.
And thus ended my beautifully strange day. Echoing Cinderella, I couldn't stay at the LA Opera palace for long—I had to get home before midnight. And echoing Mario Cavaradossi, I could also say this: “E non ho amato mai tanto la vita!”