by Michael Markham, Music
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2005
The difficulty of classical opera for students in the undergraduate Introduction to Music survey lies in a perceived cultural distance between the realistic dramatic forms that today’s students relate to and cartoonish images of huge, blubbering sopranos. I realized after failed attempts in past semesters that merely exposing students to opera and explaining its conventions would not spark much interest. They inevitably tune out before they’ve given the genre enough thought to relate its musical and theatrical representations to the social and political history that surround them. The course, itself, permits a very limited amount of time to survey the genre and the average opera is far too long for a detailed analysis. The form tends to remain closed to undergraduates; a huge, hulking, messy, “dead” thing with little direct emotional impact resonance for them.
In the 2004 Summer session, however, I decided to meet the students halfway. I was aided in this by the happy coincidence that Hollywood was, that summer, going through an epic phase. Brad Pitt was storming the gates of Troy, and if I was lucky, he might just leave them open wide enough for Jessye Norman’s Cassandra to slip through. I framed our discussion of opera in such a way that it would lead to a single writing assignment, the re-writing of each student’s own favorite film as an opera libretto. What this required of me was a lecture devoted to the similarities and differences between the dramaturgy of the stage and that of the screen. In class we compared moments from three versions of Shakespeare’s Othello: a staged theatrical version directed by Olivier, Giussepe Verdi’s operatic version, and a recent film adaptation called “O.” The discussion centered on the benefits and limits of live theater, the use of different voice types for different dramatic roles, and how the type of music employed mirrored or enhanced the dramatic situation and controlled the movement of time at each point in the operatic version. The students then answered with their own treatments, staging a beloved movie, assigning voice-types to each character, indicating where and what sort of arias would occur, and re-writing one entire scene in verse form, complete with stage instructions.
The results were marvelous. I received brilliant and imaginative “operatic” versions of everything from About Schmidt to Casablanca to Fight Club. For the first time, in my teaching experience at least, they started to understand how the flow of dramatic time is stopped by an aria and how potent an expressive force such time stoppages are. One thing I realized through this exercise is how much more critical and aware of dramaturgy is the coming generation of students than was my own. Many of those entering college today have spent a tremendous amount of time on the internet, often writing in their personal online journals or on message boards about their favorite films and television shows. They have already developed an acute, if not yet self-conscious, sense of how drama works, of how character types and dialog are brought together, and of how a basic three-act comedic or tragic story-arc progresses. Getting them interested in stage forms, even one so seemingly distant as grand opera, first requires tapping into and making them aware of this sense. They figured out quickly enough that despite their own reservations, they are already quite well equipped to understand opera. From this point, the added element of song begins to seem like less of an intrusion on “realism” and more of an enhancement of dramatic conventions that they already know and love. Berlioz’s Les Troyens had become for them, merely another way of telling the story, with virtuoso song in the place of virtuoso CGI effects. A Trojan Horse of a different stripe.