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Thursday, July 14, 2011

What does CARMEN have in common with a bunch of Frontier women?

Deborah Morrow
[Editor's Note: Central City Opera's Director of Education & Community Programs Deborah Morrow writes this blog post about the Build an Opera professional development workshop taking place in Colorado Springs this week.]

What does Carmen have in common with a bunch of Frontier women? More than you might think!

The stage of the Harrison High School auditorium in Colorado Springs has been transformed into a classroom/music room/mini-theatre for five days as 14 Colorado teachers embark on an in-depth study of Carmen - the story, the music, the dramatic structure and characters - as a model for the opera they are also creating together. The story they have chosen to opera-tize (after considering numerous ideas) is based on a true account of a group of women who traveled the Oregon Trail together after all of the men in their party died. (If you didn't know it was a true story, you might assume it was a feminist fantasy - somewhat appropriate since all but two of the workshop participants are women.)

What's the point, you might ask? This is professional development for educators to add some exciting methods to their "teaching tool kits" for enhancing the curriculum they regularly teach. Six of them have taken this workshop previously (Central City Opera has offered it every summer for 12 years), two for the THIRD time. Multiple disciplines and grades are represented – elementary music, second and fourth grades, middle school music (instrumental and vocal), middle school language and drama, a student working on her education degree, and even two retired elementary music teachers, one taking credits for re-certification and another starting a private music school in her small town. Many participants will take advantage of the three graduate credits offered for completing the workshop, to use toward their teacher certification or higher degree.

The five-day workshop, led by two experts from the Opera America service organization, includes two components, Listen and Discover and Create and Produce. Dr. Kay Hoke, a college educator and musicologist who now heads the Sunderman Conservatory at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, leads the Listen and Discover exploration of Carmen. Roger Ames, an educator, composer (of songs, oratorios, musicals and opera, including Central City Opera's bilingual opera En Mis Palabras) and choral director/composer-in-residence at Great Neck High School in New York, guides the group in the creation of a short original opera. Kay and Roger have been leading these workshops all over the U.S. for over 15 years and Roger is one of the original creators of the curriculum (dubbed Music! Words! Opera!). This hands-on approach will model methods that the participants can later use with their students in exactly the same process.

This may sound pretty serious, but in reality this workshop is tons of fun. Trust and character-building exercises and theater games, plus watching and learning the glorious music of Carmen, stimulate the creative juices (and apparently the laughter "hot button"). Laughter and smiles are constants, even when discussing serious moments in Carmen or the deaths of all those men in the Frontier story. The ideas fly thick and fast as the teachers get down to creating the scenes in their story. Once the important scenes are set, the writing (of both lyrics and music) begins. Now the hilarity is almost constant as rhyme schemes and key words and melodies begin to emerge. "What rhymes with cholera?" "I don't think I can compose music, can my song be a rap?" (No.) "Can some of the lyrics be limericks?" "I really want a scene with Indians," shouted down immediately and now a running joke.
Above and Below: Participants in this year's Build an Opera professional development play theatre games to get their creative juices flowing. Photo credit: Deborah Morrow

This process of creating and producing an original musical work is great for developing 21st century skills in students – communication, collaboration, creative thinking. The learning really explodes, and time and again we've seen students blossom when they discover the depths of their own talents. Central City Opera provides teaching artists to assist teachers and their students in this endeavor and the results are always gratifying and astounding!

It's only Wednesday of our 5-day process as I write this, so Carmen hasn't died yet (we're on Act III), and the Frontier opera is as yet unnamed and just beginning to shape up. By Friday there will be an opera to perform for each other. It probably won't be ready to submit to the Met, but you can bet the group (now friends for life) will take pride in its accomplishment (and laugh like crazy people) as those brave women sing their way across the West.

Composer Roger Ames will remain in residence with Central City Opera for two more weeks, assisting the teenagers of our Summer Performing Arts Intensive. The public can view public performances of their theatre scenes and the student-created opera on July 30 at 2:30 pm and July 31 at 10:00 am for just $5.

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