A Trio of Pure Magic

When the Stages Went Dark

By Shaun Kelly

This blog is sponsored by NAfME Corporate member Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

What’s going to happen if the schools close? What about our concerts?”

On March 13, a Friday, the announcement came from the Governor’s office that all Washington State schools would be closed until further notice. For the next two-plus years all school concerts—and all worldwide shows by music groups, famous or otherwise—were cancelled or postponed in response to the pandemic’s threat. The stages were empty, as were many businesses, restaurants, store shelves, classrooms, and the hearts of most Americans.

We K–5 Music PLC members were already reeling over which direction we would travel together, should the schools close. Our district began to implement virtual learning by, first, training every staff member in the details of dedicated platforms and programs, including Zoom, Google Suites, and Screencastify. Upon closure, confined to our homes, the specialists met every morning over Zoom, scrambling to research and compose adequate, engaging online lessons and activities that would best serve our students, while ensuring that national and state standards were also being met.

Through these many weeks of research, I found Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL).

empty elementary stage with light wood piano in front

iStockphoto.com | SylviaJansen

When the Magic of Virtual Opera Began

What are we doing today? Is it more worksheets,
or are we playing music games?”

Having previously introduced the 4th and 5th grades to the world of opera, I felt this discovery of OTSL held immense potential for virtual learning and immersion. Before COVID, my students and I explored the overtures, the famous songs and arias, and the basic stories of past works, and some more pieces such as Purcell’s King Arthur, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, among many others. In the 20th century repertoire, we explored works such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Newsies, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and bits from Hamilton. Many students were, and are, quick to find many connections between past epic works and their favorite modern musicals.

Into the fall of 2020, as families gained more access to Chromebooks and wi-fi, the online classes increased in number, duration, and virtual activity. Attendance policies were implemented and enforced, so we needed to find more reasons to keep the kids interested, engaged and, especially if unsupervised, present on the Zoom screens. It was around this time that OTSL’s digital Opera on the Go! program was introduced to our students as another tool to add to our arsenal of unprecedented teaching . . . and the greatest prize was upcoming.

When the Pirates Landed in Cornwall

“How does the Major General sing that song so FAST?”

For the first few months of the 2020–2021 school year, all staff returned to the buildings and conducted virtual learning while the students remained at home and attended Zoom sessions. Having never exhausted our supply of activities and lessons for online learning, the K–5 music staff also prepared our studios for the eventual return of students to the schools.

Priority one was, of course, to re-familiarize them with our building’s and music studio’s routines, expectations, and guidelines. We then dove straightaway into Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ The Pirates of Penzance. I don’t believe I have ever seen a more excited or happier group of music students!

Prior to presenting the OTSL version, we looked at bits of the 1983 film adaptation, then discussed how most of the cast members transferred their roles to film from the previous Broadway revival, including the many hours they all would have spent rehearsing the material for both versions. We also explored various amateur and professional stage productions available on YouTube which help students understand that each work has many different interpretations and qualities, much like remakes of movies. Then, after reading through the OTSL study guide and analyzing the humorous conflict of Frederic’s birthdate and his accidental apprenticeship, we were well on our way to a highly magical experience in which every class member was engaged.

smiling girl at laptop at home in living room

iStockphoto.com | Antonio_Diaz

After we experienced the OTSL production online multiple times, we toured the workshop videos together, and then held post-program discussions to solidify and conclude our collective adventure. But the best part was yet to come: The Zoom meeting with The Major General!

For many students, it is often difficult to imagine an actor out of character’s costume and without necessary makeup. So, it was quite a treat for our kids to meet the Major General as “a normal person just like you and me,” as one student commented. But every student was in awe, as they view any professional actor or singer to be an extraordinarily famous personality! The interactive virtual session proved to be an event we all wished to be repeated in the future.

Then the “Barber” and the “Bird Catcher” Visited

“Can we please watch ‘Pirates of Penzance’?”

“Are we going to see more opera stories this year?”

School opened in August of 2021, and the first week of music classes was filled with questions and requests regarding operas—and watching them on screens. As promised, I shared OTSL’s next Opera on the Go! offering: The Barber of Seville. Again, I found the best way to engage the students, in any grade, is to begin with presenting the general story, information on the primary characters and, most of all, finding connections between the earlier works and experiences the students have in their everyday lives, such as pop music, films, games, and Warner Brothers cartoons—specifically starring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. The interest increased to the point that any student could recognize the overture with three tones.

excited elementary boys on laptop in library

iStockphoto.com | Wavebreakmedia

This school year, the unprecedented excitement surrounding Mozart’s Tik-Tok inspired The Magic Flute has been the highlight of my school year. The singspiel opera turns out to be the best of the three over which the students in my building are raving, demanding multiple viewings, and even attempting to copy Papageno’s reed pipe or the Queen’s unbelievable arias. (I’ve had to remind some students that they need private training to avoid damaging their fragile voices.)

In fact, some wise students have also mentioned the OTSL’s version as being, perhaps, a rather clever commentary on how much society today relies on smartphones and technology. They see how the Queen’s “company” and Sarastro pose as corporate rivals in the business world.

When We Adopted OTSL into Our Curriculum

“We’re going to do these every year? Alright! Yeah!”

For many of the kids, any distractions from the struggles that COVID placed on them, their families and/or the community’s stability and health, are necessary for them to try to make sense of the world. For these growing minds and personalities, entering these other worlds of opera has given them all an escape as well as highly engaging stories with funny, familiar songs, relatable themes, and observable characters. It’s a pleasure and a necessity to provide young, developing musicians with opportunity to explore these worlds, thus learning a lot more about themselves. The SEL elements are ever-present here. This is why we are incorporating OTSL into our curriculum.

When We Need a Final, Brief Epilogue

What about the art of opera’s lasting impact on young musicians? Several 4th and 5th graders, over the past two years, have inquired about creating their own original works leading to a possible performance. It would be exciting to coach any student who has experience on any instrument, and who might invent original melodies with chords. This idea opens many more doors of opportunity for young music students to experience the entire journey of mental spark to stage performance. I think we’ll give this a try next year.

Check out Opera on the GO! featuring Mozart’s The Magic Flute!

Past articles from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: 

About the author:

Shaun Kelly has served in Cheney, Washington, for the past thirteen years, following an extended substitute position and three previous years with local independent schools. His current program includes K–5 General Music, 5th Grade Concert Band, 5th Grade String Orchestra, 5th Grade Choir, Guitar, Drama, Stagecraft, and Dance. Following two terms with the U.S. Navy, Shaun earned his K–12 Music BAE diploma, as well as a BA (Music Composition) degree, from Eastern Washington University. He also served eight years each with the Naval Reserves and as a touring musician, composer, and arranger with the 133D Army Band of Washington State. He has performed and recorded with the EWU Orchestra, the Gonzaga University Symphony, various local bands, Northwest Folklife Festival, and Spokane Fall Folk. He also composed the score for the 2000 EWU Theatre production of “Rosie,” and the March 2004 Spokane Symphony/Celtic Knots Irish Festival Concert.

Shaun discovered the importance of introducing opera to young musicians when several students inquired about various overtures or arias appearing in films and cartoons they’d seen. These groups then requested to perform reduced versions of their favorite musicals for school concerts. Through the study of available, appropriate works, Shaun and his enlightened students have explored and assessed the connections between past stage masterpieces and modern musical theatre and film.

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

March 14, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

April 2024 Teaching Music

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March 14, 2023


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March 14, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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