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Teachers Test the New M!W!O!
Sarah Bryan Miller
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Opera America Magazine9/1/2009

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Teach children to write operas? The idea may seem daunting, but the with help of OPERA America’s Music! Words! Opera! (M!W!O!) curriculum, teachers across the country have been doing just that for the last 20 years. M!W!O!’s intense five-day summer course provides teachers with the tools they need to build those operas.

Those tools have been newly honed by the M!W!O! team, composer Roger Ames and word-man Clifford Brooks. A group of 22 teachers-turned-students in Saint Louis got to be the guinea pigs for the latest version of the curriculum.

The revision, said Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Director of Education Allison Felter, takes “all the things that have been learned over the last 20 years and puts them in a format that’s more user-friendly.”

M!W!O! was born when personal computing was in its infancy. The updated curriculum “boils down to best practices — what we’ve learned over the last 20 years,” said Felter. “We’re just conveying it in a format for 21st-century technology.”

The group of teachers started by studying a standard opera, and then deconstructing it. One June morning in the recital hall at the University of St. Louis-Missouri, Turandot got the treatment. On video, Eva Marton’s murderous Princess Turandot grew increasingly annoyed as Plácido Domingo’s lovestruck Calaf guessed the answers to her riddles and the mob muttered mutinously in a lavish production by Franco Zeffirelli.

Once Act II ended, the lights went up, and the discussion began, skillfully assisted by Brooks and Ames. It was a more sophisticated version of what these teachers will later help their own students do in the 15-to-20 minute compositions they’ll produce.

The conversation zinged around like a pinball, bouncing off topics that included the number of things in this opera that come in threes; the influence of Italian Roman Catholic culture on Zeffirelli’s productions; ways to bring childrens’ own culture into operatic presentations; operas that use Asian melodies (Brooks delivered an impromptu but thorough lecture on the subject); and just how you’re supposed to pronounce Turandot, anyway (Brooks believes pronunciation of the final “t” can go either way).

The next stage came after a short break, as the class worked on its own opera in the same way that they’ll guide their students in writing theirs. Ames led the way, with tips on texts, using words and rhythms to bring out a character’s emotional state and how to get kids thinking melodically.

“Verbs are our hot words,” he emphasized, as the teachers wrestled with a text. “If you’re not hitting the verbs, it’s not working.” He inveighed against everyday meters: “It is not incumbent upon us to lock language into boring 4/4 language. Let’s not get all first grade about this.” Instead, they tried triplets.

Next, “Make a decision about the drama.” The meter and the tempo help to set the mood. And never be afraid to offer your own ideas; never, he stresses, settle for mediocrity.

With that decided, it was time to create the music. “Is there an ivory tower we put composers in?” asked Ames. “Give me a break.” He ordered the teachers to experiment with singing the first line, then the second, making up a tune on the spot. From there, he went to the piano and played it, complete with chords. By the time the hour ended, the group had a singable aria that carried emotions effectively.

When the class broke for lunch, it was for more than a meal; partners took the opportunity to work on their individual projects. There wasn’t a lot of downtime in the day, but the enthusiasm in the room was palpable.

The only suggestion that Mary Murphy had for Ames and Brooks was that it would be nice to spread the class over two less tightly-packed weeks. Murphy, a kindergarten teacher at a parochial school in south St. Louis County, has been a M!W!O! teacher for nine years, enough to take one class from kindergarten to graduation (“Everyone who has attended our school in the last nine years has been involved with opera”), and was on her third round of training.

“It is one of the most thought-provoking, interesting classes I have ever taken in my life,” said Murphy. “Even if you have no background in music, you get a lot out of it.”

Murphy applauded the changes in the curriculum, which include more hands-on work for students and more themes that can be carried throughout the classroom.

For example, “with Turandot,” she notes, “you can study Chinese art, Chinese history and culture, the calendar, math; you can bring in a lot of different avenues. You can also take it up to different grade levels. In other words, you’ve got your goals cut out for the year!”

Susan Wells-Souza teaches music to junior kindergarten through sixth grade classes at an independent school in the city of St. Louis. It’s a special school for promising kids, in which 80 percent of the funding comes from donations.

Along with more use of technology than the original, the updated approach makes more use of collaborative teaching between grade levels and disciplines. “At my school, the first graders are already writing fairy tales,” says Wells-Souza, “so we’re halfway there.” Murphy liked the new possibilities for encouraging students “to work together in a positive way instead of a competitive way.”

Both teachers appreciate the help they get from the opera company. Opera Theatre of Saint Louis provides mentors on request, at no charge, for help in writing librettos, setting them to music and, once the opera’s completed, in staging. “That’s a pretty good deal,” agreed Felter.

Felter reports strongly positive feedback at week’s end. “This new effort, I think, will spark another generation of users,” she observed, adding that the company is now in talks with a publisher. “It has the potential of being pretty darned ubiquitous.”

Murphy summed up the course’s appeal: “It showed me that even at the age of 63, there’s a lot of untapped talent inside of me. The more we can introduce this to the little guys, the more they’re going to use it.

“You’re opening up their minds to so much: art, music, drama. It gets them out of themselves. It’s like opening a door: What’s around it? Wow! Look what’s there!”
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About the Author: Sarah Bryan Miller, the classical music critic of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is a former professional mezzo-soprano.
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