Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Day at the Opera & the Weeks of Preparation

Usually by October 1, the art teacher and I have written an elaborate application to the Los Angeles Opera in hopes of being selected a school who will attend one of two full-on matinees. In the past years the process has been rigorous. A pair of original lessons adhering to visual arts and language standards must pass scrutiny of the opera education department. This year the stakes were even higher. The program was forced to reduce its matinees to one. In addition, funds for school buses have nearly vanished.

We called this project, "From Alhambra to Seville," invoking our town and "The Barber of Seville." We researched commedia dell'arte and decided to create a lesson based on opera buffa and the life of Rossini. We met our deadline. Then we chewed our nails and by Halloween assumed that we had been eliminated. However, due to a glitch, we learned belatedly that we WERE indeed chosen once again. This opera competition is not kids' stuff. The teachers who submit applications hail from all over our county, representing private and public schools. They teach AP, average, and at-risk youth; humanities, music, foreign language, English, drama, and beyond. It's stellar to be accepted, and from that point, the onus to prepare students to experience an opera and comport themselves properly is dead serious.

The Los Angeles Opera and its patrons throw their support into the annual project of bringing young people to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This year, on December 8, an energetic, professional ensemble of vocalists, dancers, musicians, lighting and set designers presented a gorgeous three-hour production to a full house. Seats which ordinarily cost from 60$ to 260$ were donated so that Los Angeles students could steep themselves in live opera. For many kids this was THE field trip of the year. We live in such strapped times that we can no longer take the occasional cultural outing for granted. The elegance of opera-going was theirs for that single day. Will it be remembered? I vote yes.

But allow me to pull back the curtain and reveal just what it takes to make such a field trip happen. I confess to a certain queasy ambivalence this year when I learned that our lesson plan had made the grade. It is very nerve-wracking to take 30 continuation school students out to a ritzy institution. All my fears about profanity, fights, inebriation, tagging, or just small stuff like quashing conversations in the house or losing children rose up like condos replacing bungalows in Pasadena. But then I steeled myself.

The art teacher and I marched through November with our preparations. We played arias. We got composition books so that the kids could arrange all their handouts and design commonplace books. Our students prefer to create a product. Theorizing and reveling in abstractions are proven ways to shut down their interest, so we have to inject the color, the texture, the fun of the pageantry of opera. (In past years we have watched MOULIN ROUGE prior to La Boheme, or built shoebox dioramas of torture rooms for Tosca.) We also had to ready the students to be attentive for our guest from the speakers' bureau, a mentally supple gent named Mr. Cadman, who brought along his personal powerpoint-boombox equipage. After Mr. Cadman spoke, we had the kids write him thank you notes, because good manners make the world go 'round.

The week before the field trip, we distributed the permission slips and then chased those down. We dunned the students regarding modest attire, about not looking hoochy, about not wearing hats, and about relinquishing electronics. This was the toughest part because these guys are committed to ipods and phones. (We actually put each item in a baggy, labeled it, and locked it in the office during the hours we were away from campus.) On December 8, we met for breakfast in the art teacher's room. We reviewed how it would go yet again. We now had four adults and 27 students. A short bus ride away we found ourselves spilling out onto the Music Center Plaza. "Miss, you're looking all tense," one boy chided me. By 10:10 a.m. the doors opened, and schools of teenagers swam under the glittering chandeliers on the way to their seats. Precisely at 11 a.m., the familiar overture rose, and the students remembered that this was their cue to fall silent. My students were actually polite and attentive. They watched the production, and I watched them, just as it should be. Twenty-seven plus four adults returned by bus. And just as it should, it all worked out. Bravo!

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