The first time I heard about the Community Educators program was on Facebook. The post described what it was: a training program for speakers who would share their opera-love with audiences. Applying to join went down on my adult life to-do list.
The second time I heard about the program was by e-mail notification. “We are seeking middle and high-school students who would be able to give feedback during these presentation training sessions (for example: what works, suggestions for ways to improve their project/presentation, etc).” It looked like I didn't have to wait to get a taste of the program. I was punching in a reply and hitting “Send” before it all really registered in my mind.
So, a few days later, I arrived at the Dorothy Chandler and headed for the Artists' Entrance. Every time I walk through that door, a small thrill tickles me. I always imagine all the incredible people who have graced that threshold. It got even more awesome when I signed in and saw that some of my Opera Camp friends would also be there. And even going up the elevator to Rehearsal Room 1 was exciting. I mean, being in the elevator with (a framed portrait of) Plácido Domingo doesn't exactly soothe the nerves.
It only got better. Afraid that I'd be late, I had arrived a bit too early. It turned out to be a good thing—I was allowed to have a glimpse of some Foscari things in another rehearsal room. Believe me, when I saw the costumes labeled with the names “Domingo” and “Poplavskaya,” my heart nearly fell through the floor.
I managed to stay intact as I walked back to Rehearsal Room 1. People slowly trickled in, and I had a happy reunion with my awesome 90012 friends. After a while, the lady who's teaching the program, Carmen Recker, greeted us, thanked us for coming, and told us what the session would be all about. She explained that the educators had been training for weeks. At this point, each educator had selected an opera to present about, and had developed a corresponding activity. Alongside the other educators, we would act as their audience and try these activities out. Our job was to give feedback, providing the teenage student perspective.
I could hardly believe my ears. I was going to get community service hours for testing opera games? Gosh, I would have paid to get this opportunity to participate.
We launched into the night's program. First, Jessica Gonzales-Rodriguez stepped up before her audience of fellow educators and volunteers. Her task was to introduce Tosca to 8th graders. When she started talking, I noted on my paper the strong, assured way she addressed us. She told us what the upcoming activity was: we would get into three teams, Tosca, Mario, and yes—Scarpia. Each team got to choose a scene to act out. The catch was that we couldn't speak while acting. We could only use body language and facial expressions. Plus, we only had a minute for the scene. I was in the Tosca group. We did the scene when Tosca goes crazy about the way her boyfriend, Mario, painted Mary Magdalene's eyes. They looked suspiciously similar to the eyes of a girl who had visited the church... And I got to play Tosca! It was fun being an exploding diva for sixty seconds. Also, I think the activity as a whole will really let students get “inside” the opera. It'll probably make them curious about Tosca so that they can watch the scenes they acted out, to see the context, the singers' interpretations, everything. And, during the actual presentations, Ms. Gonzales-Rodriguez will also play the corresponding music of each scene in the background. Can I disguise myself as an eighth grader and join her teaching sessions?!
When the activity was over, we gave our feedback and then moved on. Next up: Annie Austin speaking about The Flying Dutchman, her presentation molded for AP 12th grade. She was both humorous and matter-of-fact. She distributed packs of M&Ms into the crowd and then explained the activity: While excerpts from Dutchman played, we would have to keep passing along the M&Ms. When she paused the music, we would stop. Whoever ended up with a pack in their hands would have to answer a question—a question about the opera, about ghost stories, and about how the two connected. It sounded simple enough. Let me tell you now, though—her activity was one of the most stressful games I've ever experienced. We were unevenly spaced, so people were rushing frantically across the room to rid themselves of the M&Ms. Packs went flying and skidding everywhere. And all this was happening with Wagner roaring and bellowing in the background. Really, the epic-ness of the game could rival anything in his oeuvre.
Of course, we all gave positive remarks while we “recovered.” The next activity was a little quieter, so we started to calm down. The speaker was Judith Hyman, with a Madame Butterfly presentation intended for grade 8. The activity was one of the most thought-provoking of all of them so far. We had to put both Pinkerton and Butterfly on trial and determine: Innocent or Guilty? Just the notion of Butterfly being guilty startled my brain gears. Since Pinkerton was the one who left her, not the other way around, I had never considered that she may be the one in the wrong. We were divided into four groups: Butterfly Innocent, Butterfly Guilty, Pinkerton Innocent, Pinkerton Guilty. My group got one of the harder stances, Pinkerton Innocent. When we started discussing, we realized that the notion wasn't all that ridiculous. Maybe Pinkerton was just a product of his time. Maybe he didn't know how devastated Butterfly would be. Maybe Butterfly was just dumb to really think it was true love...After all four groups voiced their viewpoints, we were freed from our assigned stances. We all took a vote. Of course, Butterfly Innocent won. Still, I have to give Butterfly Guilty the prize for the funniest statement of the trial: “Butterfly was a spoiled, immature BRAT.”
The trial activity will be really effective with the students, I think. They'll want to go see the opera to deliver the final verdict for themselves. And plus, the idea itself of Butterfly being guilty destroys that stereotype of the innocent, wronged, heartbroken soprano. It'll definitely make teenagers think twice about opera itself.
We took a break after the Butterfly activity. Then, we all transformed into elementary school kids for Dorothy Mathious' presentation of The Magic Flute, created for second graders. First, she told us all about the character Papageno, a bubbly bird catcher. Then, we all picked some colorful feathers. Getting into the spirit of elementary school, we started whining, “I want the blue one!” “I want the red one!” Garrett Collins, Communications Coordinator, grabbed a whole bunch of feathers and started taunting the rest of us with “I got all the feathers! I got all the feathers!” We somehow remembered our maturity, though, and divided the rest of the feathers in a civilized manner. She told us to think of our favorite birds and to imagine that we were those birds. As Mozart's jubilant, airy music played, we flapped and paraded in a circle around the room, and whenever we heard Papageno's pipes, we leapt into the air and reversed directions. I have to admit that I was having the time of my life. I mean, I was starting school the next day, so it was nice to be a second grader again.
The fun couldn't last forever, though. Soon, the music ended, and since the next activity was geared right at my actual grade level—grade ten—I had grown up all over again. It was worth it, though. Erika Nadir presentation was wonderful. I really liked the way she spoke. She was very energetic, enthusiastic, and, most of all, natural. I have trouble being natural in public speaking, so I admired that a lot. Her activity was incredible, too. She split us into groups and gave each group one line from Tosca: Mario's delirious “Vittoria! Vittoria!” (Victory! Victory!), Tosca's grim, vengeful “Io quella lama gli piantai nel cor” (I planted that dagger in his heart), and Scarpia's thoroughly creepy “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!” (Tosca, you make me forget God). We said or sang the line the way we thought it would sound, and then we heard the actual thing. I really thought it was such a wonderful activity. It put you in a composer's mindset.
The last presentation of the night was Elizabeth Burke's on Cinderella, aimed towards eighth graders. I got the sense that she really knew her material. It was very interesting to compare and contrast the fairytale with the opera. For one thing, there was no evil step-mother—it was a step-father. In the opera, the fairy godmother became a philosopher instead. And gone was the glass slipper. Rossini made it a bracelet. After we got the low-down on Cinderella, we did an awesome activity. We got called up to the front of the room, chose which character we wanted to be, and then answered audience questions as the character. Luckily, we had small fact sheets about our selected person to help us. After the questioning was over, we each got a mounted picture of Cinderella, or more precisely, of the Cecilia Bartoli recording. A lot of middle schoolers like role-play games and especially tangible rewards, so I think it'll work really well with eighth graders.
I really wouldn't have minded staying all night playing opera games, but unfortunately, that was the last presentation of the night. I left with a whole lot of things buzzing through my head: new insights, funny things people said...It was truly one fine day.