Opera Activities

From Portland Opera’s Manager of Education & Community Engagement, Alexis Hamilton

Opera is a wonderful art form—beautiful, passionate, entertaining! But did you know that it could also provide some terrific, creative learning opportunities for you and your kids? It absolutely can! Here are some thoughts about fun ways that you can connect with your children, with music and still slip in some core curricular goals.

ACTIVITY SIX: PEOPLE POSTCARDS

I have usually done this activity with class groups of 5 or more, but you can extend your cast with toys from your kids collection…instead of using your bodies in the vignette, you could use your stuffed animals, dolls or action figures. But I admit, it is more fun to do it with your bodies!

In this exercise, you are also tapping into that literacy skill of sequencing. You can scaffold this by looking at a picture book together. It works really well to use picture books without words, like Tuesday by David Wiesner…which if you haven’t “read” it, you really should. It is beautiful and hilarious.

  • To start, look at a picture book. Discuss with your kids how the pictures tell the story. Ask them how they know what is going on in the story without words telling them. Explain that movies, plays, operas and ballets tell stories in similar ways—with visuals. Often it is possible to follow an opera without understanding the words at all.
  • Next, explain that now you are going to tell/read them a story (or have them read it themselves) with no pictures. Their job will be to pick 5 major things that happened in the story that they could use to tell the basic story. Read the story together.
  • Now have them identify their events in the story. If you have more than one child, they should work together to decide.
    • After they have identified the major scenes, now is the time that they create a silent vignette of each scene. They should make sure that their faces are in the appropriate expressions, etc. They can also use dolls and stuffed animals to act out the scenes.
    • Have them perform the vignettes for you. They are not allowed to speak. See if you can guess what the scene is, or what is happening in each scene!

EXTENSION ACTIVITY:

  • Your kids can take this further and create a stop motion animated movie with dolls and action figures set to your favorite opera overture! Just create your vignette, snap a pic on your phone, reposition your figures, take another pic…etc., etc. For the right kids this could take HOURS and you can work, clean the house, nap…

ACTIVITY FIVE: DESIGN A COSTUME

We are told, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but we are also told, “Clothes make the man [or person],” and while how a person looks or dresses gives us no insight into the worth of individuals and makes no difference as to how we should treat them, clothes can potentially tell us an awful lot about a person’s personality and preferences. In theater, clothing (costumes) give the audience REAMS of information about a character, and good costume design works both on a conscious and subconscious level to provide insight into who and what a character is.

In this activity, your student gets to design a costume! It can be a costume for an opera, a story, a play, or someone they make up themselves. The trick is, they have to think about how the costume they design transmits information about the character of the person wearing the costume.

Take some picture books out (preferably ones that have people or anthropomorphized animals wearing clothes!) You can also go online to look for pictures of people in plays or operas, if the picture books at home are so familiar that your child’s knowledge of the character from the story gives them too much information about the personality of the character and they cannot look at the clothes and gather additional information.

Start asking questions and start easy: Are the clothes fancy or casual? What do you think they are made out of? Do the clothes look expensive or are they cheap? Are they in good repair, or are they worn? What kinds of colors are they? Do they look coordinated, or are they eccentric? What are the clothes for? Are they a uniform? Do they look like work clothes or party clothes? You get the picture.

After you start thinking about the clothes themselves, you can start to think about what they tell us about the personality wearing them. For instance: Where do you think the person is going or what are they doing based on their clothes? Do you think the character bought their own clothes, or did someone buy them for them? Do you think they have a lot of money or very little? Etc.

In a play, costumes need to do some practical things as well as aesthetic things. They may need to serve a purpose—they need to tell us what time period the show is set in; maybe if a person “belongs” with another person; costumes can tell us where the person is going, where they are, and what they are doing.  Costumes have to be practical, in that they can have different parts that can be put on or taken off to indicate that a scene has changed (think a hat or a cloak).

Now that you have a little bit of a frame of reference, here are some opera synopsis that you can read to your child, or have your child read:

https://wiki.kidzsearch.com/wiki/The_Magic_Flute

https://kids.kiddle.co/The_Barber_of_Seville

https://kids.kiddle.co/La_boh%C3%A8me

Have you kid/s pick a character or characters from their chosen opera and design costumes for that character, paying close attention to what we know of the character from the synopsis. Listen to some of the music their character/s sing/s. (If you want to go deeper with an older child, have them read a libretto in translation. All of the above operas have librettos available online in English with a quick google search.) Music is available on Amazon Music or any other streaming service. Don’t watch YouTube! It might change your costume design. Although research is a key component of costume design for this exercise, let them create the costume based on their understanding/reading of the character. Both reading the words the character sings and hearing the music that they sing will inform their thoughts about the character.

Download a costume template here.

Have fun!

ACTIVITY FOUR: WRITE A PASTICHE!

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the demand for new operas was STAGGERING. So composers were flailing around trying to create as many fresh options as they could. As you can imagine, it isn’t that easy to write a brand new opera on demand, so composers sometimes created pasticcio or pastiches. They would bring together selections from other operas (sometimes their own, just as often someone else’s) tweak them to fit new words and new situations, and create a new story. Ballad operas are similar. The composer would then create the recitative (connecting conversations) to string it all together. Voila! A new opera!

Here’s what you and your students can do to create your own pastiche!

A couple of things to remember:

  • In general, in opera, an aria or an ensemble provides emotional context to the action and recitative is the dialogue that holds it together…Recitative tells you what I’m doing; arias tell you how I feel about it.
  • Arias and duets, etc., are usually sung and emotional high points. So, for instance, in our example below of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks might sing some recitative about how she is taking a walk because it is a beautiful day, and then sing an aria about how delicious the sunshine feels on her shoulders and how happy she feels hearing the birds sing.
  • Find a story. You can use a familiar one or make up one of your own. If you would like a scaffold for younger students pick a very familiar story, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
  • Identify the major events in the story. This is called sequencing and early elementary kids have to do that all the time. They should pick up on the major emotions in that part of the story too. Have them think of popular songs that they know, or songs that they like that might fit for these events.
  • Here’s the really fun part: Re-write the words to fit the situation so that you can sing your “new” song.  New words, old tune! So…my family and I do this all the time. Currently, you can find me singing, “Wash, Wash, Wash your hands. Just wash away the virus. Wash, Wash, Wash your hands, that way, it will get by us. Wash, Wash, Wash, Wash. You must wash your hands.” to the tune of Verdi’s Anvil chorus from Il Trovatore. (Now it’s stuck in your head too. Ha!)
  • Now string your songs together with dialogue!

Once you have, give it a whirl! Perform it together. Have fun!

ACTIVITY THREE: HANSEL & GRETEL

This week our activity relies more on your child’s right brain. Download and print out the gingerbread house and characters from Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel. Have the little ones color in the finger puppets, cut them out, glue popsicle sticks to them, and reenact the story. The gingerbread house provides the set for some 3-D fun! Let their imaginations run wild or follow the opera’s storyline here.

Download the Gingerbread House design here.

Download the Finger Puppet design here.

ACTIVITY TWO: DESIGN A SET

This activity is a lot of fun, and can be used with little ones, or geared up for older kids easily. This activity has a LOT of potential to bring in math skills with a little creativity on your part too. Is your student working on geometric shapes? Ask them to include such shapes in their set design. Working on fractions or ratios? Have them pay attention to scale in the set design. Students will be working various parts of their brain on this one and the sky is the limit.

You can make this as involved or complex as you would like. You can simply do drawings or you can create a scaled model or a diorama. What do you have on hand?

  • Explain that a set for an opera is the “setting” or environment in which the characters work. If you have a picture book, you can talk about the background of the pictures in the book as the set, and explain that there is a lot of information that the viewer gets from looking at the background of a picture. Talk a little bit about what they can learn about the story from looking at the background of the picture. For instance, where do the characters live? How do they live? Are they rich or poor? How do you know? What is the neighborhood or environment like?
  • Talk a little bit about how sets and costumes in the opera or a play tell the audience about the character: Color is super cultural, but can convey a lot of emotional information, for instance.
  • Explain that they are going to have a chance to create a set for the story of an opera. Each scene might have a different set as characters move through their story and the environments in it. You can choose to concentrate on one scene or have them design multiple scenes. If your student is older, have them try to figure out how to create one set and create multiple scenes or environments by adding or subtracting elements from their set. For this exercise, they can design the furniture, wall hangings, etc., of all interiors as well.
  • Next, choose an opera! Wonderful operas for kids to explore might be The Magic Flute by Mozart, if you would like a story unfamiliar to your student or if you would like to make it a little easier for them, pick a fairytale opera like Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel or Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella) or Massenet’s Cendrillon (also Cinderella). Bonus points if you read both of these librettos/synopses and do some comparison on the two versions! The stories are quite different in the details and tell you a little bit about the different cultures they come from!
  • Synopses of all of these operas are readily available online. So are English language librettos. If your student is in high school, have them read the libretto. Read the synopsis together. Then listen to some of the music.
  • From the synopsis, have your student identify one or two scenes they would like to design the set for. What does the set need?  What colors should they use, etc.? Have them write down those elements they think are most important and then sketch out the background. Have them think about where in the space a singer actor could be. Remind them that this will be three dimensional.
  • Create your diorama! Lots of set designers create 3D models and include cut outs to represent the characters. Don’t forget to scale up! If your student can work with ratios, decide how much smaller their model is than what they want the set to be in real life. If your kid is working on geometry and studying shapes, work a cube or dodecahedron into the set! Why might it be there?  What is it for?

ACTIVITY ONE: MUSICAL STORYTIME

Pull together some selections of music—opera arias, opera overtures, orchestral or symphonic music—just make sure that any words to any songs are in a language your learner doesn’t know. I will put some suggestions of music below, and you can always pull from your own favorites! To start with, I like to have selections that are pretty obviously emotional and with BIG emotions. Musical melancholy is hard for a six-year-old to wrap their heads around, but agony, misery, and defeat—they can hear that! Go big! Here’s what you do:

  • Tell your student that one of the ways that music is special is that it can remind us of different emotions just by the way it sounds—it can even help us to feel those emotions. Explain that what is even more special is that some types of music were written to tell stories and that you don’t always have to understand the words to get the story.
  • Explain that you are going to play a game together now. You are going to play some music (please note that you don’t have to play an entire 7 minute aria or 10 minute overture! You can play sections to fit your students’ needs), and as they listen, they should think about the emotions and the story that they think it tells. (Hey, if you don’t know the music, you can play too!)
  • After they listen, have them tell you their story. I am constantly wowed by how close people sometimes come to what is actually happening. And the students that I have done this with have LOVED hearing the whole opera story and seeing how close they came. Make sure that when you do this, you validate their opinions about how the music sounds. There are no right or wrong answers…it is their responses and their listening skills that are important here!

I have done this listening activity with kids k-young adult and they have always responded. It is fun and creative, and it engages those storytelling processes that are so important to emerging readers. It also helps students to organize their thoughts into a coherent story and sequence events (if the music changes character, for instance, that is like an event in written story).

Variations:

Depending on your needs you can do this same activity but ask for different responses from your student.

Do you have a very wiggly little one in need of some physical activity? Interpretive dance is a great way to have them burn off extra energy, listen for the emotions in a piece of music and tell a story in physical space. The process is the same as above, except instead of telling you the story they hear, ask them to show you the story that they hear with their bodies and movement. They are not allowed to speak. They dance what they hear.

Need some peace and quiet, and to get a little something done for work? Pull out as big a sheet of paper as you have, the markers or crayons and tell them that music has a line. You are going to play some selections (create a playlist if you cannot do this activity directly with them) and have them draw one line throughout the music—the game here is that the line is to describe that of the music. Is the music smooth and slow? Maybe your line has lazy curves or loops. Is the music fast or jagged? Your line should reflect that. It can loop, scrawl, zigzag—but it cannot come off the paper! Make sure that when you have time, you listen to the musical selections again with your child and let them show you how their lines work with the music.

Lastly, you can also have your student respond to the music with a full-blown work of art. They can write an ekphrastic poem. Usually ekphrastic poems are poems that are inspired by our reactions to visual arts, but I see no reason why it couldn’t be in reaction to a symphonic piece! 

Related activity:

Walt Disney created his incredibly artistic and creative response to classical music in 1940 with Fantasia. Disney Studios did it again in 2000 with Fantasia 2000. Both of these are wonderful to watch, in whole or in part, and should serve as a little inspiration if your students are having trouble figuring out how to listen to the music and pull out a story. (My favorite selection from these movies is in Fantasia 2000, Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Gets me every time!)

Some Suggested selections for Musical StoryTime Activity

  • Overture to Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman
  • “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni
  • “Sì, ritrovarla io guiro” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola (make sure to start on the aria proper! The part where it sounds like he’s getting on the horse! Don’t tell the kids I said that. This one has wonderful transitions that your kids can really get into telling the story with.)
  • “Der Hölle Rache” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute
  • “Stridono lassú” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (make sure to listen for the birdsong—see if your students pick up on it!)
  • “Te Deum” from Puccini’s Tosca
  • First Chorus from Puccini’s Turandot

Make sure to take photos and post online and tag Portland Opera! We’ll post more ideas in the future!