Music! Words! Opera! Celebrates 20 Years
Opera America Magazine •
In one of the first brochures printed to advertise Music! Words! Opera! (M!W!O!), David Gockley, then general director of Houston Grand Opera, stated the following:
"The textbook project [M!W!O!] represents a major change in policy. This is the first time we have asked schools what we can do for them. We are going about this with a real sense of service. The usual way has been to expect education to recognize our greatness and come to our door. Now we're saying, 'Here is the way our resources can be used in your classroom, week to week.'"
It all began about 1980, when Marthalie Furber, newly-appointed education director of OPERA America, conducted an environmental scan to discern what was going on in opera education throughout the country. Many of us already involved in company education departments knew of "create an opera" projects in different opera companies. Exciting things were happening in such locales as the Berkshires, San Diego, Tulsa and Tucson. Carroll Reinhart, a pioneer in the field of music education, had observed the work of a colleague in San Diego and began building from a number of creative processes to develop a methodology for children to create their own pieces of musical theater. He shared this with several opera professionals, including Henry Holt. Not long afterward, he was contacted by Marthalie Furber. The discussions began in earnest.
At the same time as the creative process component was being analyzed, other opera companies were heavily engaged in in-depth study of great works as they related to the K-12 curriculum. Schools in Natick, Boston and Lexington, MA had integrated such operas as Faust, Madame Butterfly and Hansel and Gretel into their daily instructional strategies. Realizing that both the creative process and the study of great works were intimately bound together and could form the basis of an innovative curriculum where content and process were equally balanced, a number of visionary opera educators set out to develop a collaborative approach to instruction that mirrored the art form itself. The result was an integrated curriculum that started a revolution not only in arts education, but also influenced the education world itself.
The road was not easy. Many in the worlds of general education, music education and opera could not support the idea that children were capable of creating music. The word "opera" itself posed a problem, since its reputation as an elitist art form permeated every level of society. Whether urban or suburban, many did not see how opera could be used to demonstrate the cultural diversity of our society, or serve as an anchor to both the content and context of historical events, periods or characters. The early years saw cognitive psychologists, education gurus, university professors, classroom teachers and opera professionals coming together at a number of meetings to find the best way to approach creating a set of classroom materials that would meet the needs of any K-12 teacher.
Music! Words! Opera! was the first set of sequenced resource materials designed to guide students through discovery of how opera relates to them and how they can create, produce and perform their own works. It was carefully crafted to demonstrate that the processes used to create and produce a work of art are fundamental components of learning. Its success in balancing the study of works by great artists with the creation of original works fostered a dual approach which led students to the realization that their thoughts were indeed profound — and that others have shared their concerns and found solutions to problems similar to their own. Students who never before were engaged in school-related activities acknowledged that they themselves had the power to learn and to express their ideas effectively.
Totally innovative at the time, M!W!O! was designed to be used by regular classroom teachers, music specialists or any person interested in teaching about the great works or the creative process in a school system or other similar agency. Since its first appearance in the early 1990s, M!W!O! has been used in extracurricular environments, senior citizen centers, maximum security prisons, juvenile detention centers, colleges and preschools.
There are a number of cognitive, affective, metacognitive and social strategies at work in the M!W!O! process, not to mention memory and the use of psychomotor skills in both the "Listen and Discover" and creative process work. Risk-taking is encouraged, goal setting is mandatory and student motivation remains high through the increased ownership component that builds in each participant during the project.
M!W!O! has proven to be a successful vehicle in language arts and ESL classrooms, where students use new words, drama and gesture to elaborate upon a basic plot synopsis, provide details to help make events and characters come alive, and interact to bring about increased conversation, all of which aids in vocabulary building and promotes self-correction. The kinesthetic, auditory and visual activities built into the lesson plans emphasize interpersonal skills and rely upon teaching strategies which are designed to reach students of diverse learning styles.
While thousands of children and hundreds of teachers nationwide are still using the original curricular materials, there have been numerous requests to add to the original scope of the project and revise the materials to include newer technologies and effective teacher techniques discovered over the past 20 years.
Charles MacKay, while general director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL), negotiated a development grant from MetLife to begin the revisions. Allison Felter, director of education and outreach programs at OTSL, organized a review committee of teachers and consultants with many years of M!W!O! experience and the critiquing process began.
Members of the review committee shared ideas about lesson plan structures, accompanying recordings and their formats. They discussed requests for new operas, additional guidelines for wider use of the Internet, e-collaboration with OPERA America and its members, and added material for the "Create and Produce" part of the curriculum.
GIA Music of Chicago reviewed the original materials and the revision plan and has agreed to publish and distribute the new materials. These materials will be available to any and all educators — those affiliated with or located near OPERA America members and also those who do not have a company in or near their community.
Each set of materials will be produced with a CD and DVD included, along with an extensive revision of Create and Produce lesson plans and an additional catalog of exercises to further help teachers develop lyrics and compose music with their students. The plan is to publish and distribute one opera title at a time — with adaptable lesson plans for all ages in each book. The lesson plans are designed to work over a full semester or year's study — however, each can be easily adapted to a middle school's quarter plan of 10 weeks.
The Create and Produce section of each set of lesson plans will offer activities using melodic and lyrical examples of that specific opera to help students model their own work from the opera they are also studying.
The link between a masterwork and the creative project, recommended in the original textbook, is now more direct, and the lesson plans for analysis (Listen and Discover) more closely work in parallel with the lesson plans for modeling and creating (Create and Produce).
Also new to Create and Produce will be exercises focusing on literary structures, masterpiece lyrics from the Broadway tradition and in-depth lessons on dramatic structu
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