I have been teaching fine arts at Narbonne High School for three years. I specialize in vocal music and theater and have had the pleasure of teaching students the “art” of loving the arts. This year, I tried something different by attending LA Opera’s Opera for Educators sessions. I’ve gained so much from these sessions that have fueled my passion for opera – a passion that I share with my students.
On April 4, I attended the final session for the 2015-16 season, which focused on the company’s current production of Puccini’s La Bohème. It was the best one yet and capped off an excellent season of personal and professional development. I had the opportunity to learn from three knowledgeable arts leaders: Jeremy Frank, LA Opera’s Associate Chorus Master, Dr. Mitchell Morris, Professor of Musicology at UCLA, and Peter Kazaras, director of this production of La Bohème.
Frank began by giving us a background on the basics of opera and performance. This is something he always does in these sessions, to get all educators up to speed on the world of opera. This time, Frank also went further into the history of La Bohème. From there, Morris taught us about the rich world of Puccini’s characters in La Bohème. Morris also analyzed Puccini’s music and the role it played in the realistic portrayal of struggling artists. Thanks to Morris, I had the chance to “geek out” over opera history and as well as gritty, late nineteenth century history (this production’s time period). Finally, I spoke with Kazaras about his vision for the show – a vision I couldn’t wait to discuss with my students.
After this session, I felt so much more confident teaching my students about La Bohème. In fact, I felt excited to share this wonderful art form with my students, before bringing them to the production. We spent over a week preparing for their trip to see La Bohème. The students engaged in conversations around the late nineteenth century and the introduction of realism and nationalism into opera. They learned what a reminiscence motive and a leitmotiv are, and watched both an updated look at the story (RENT), as well as the 2012 Salzburg Festival’s production of Puccini’s classic.
The students who attended La Bohème returned and said they were captivated by the opera. Several students said they enjoyed it far more than the videos we viewed in class. As has become a custom with our students, not a single one claimed to have less than an amazing time at the opera. A couple of students even called out the sword fight scene (with baguettes) as a particularly entertaining moment, and all the students felt the joy and sorrow of Rodolfo and Mimi’s relationship.
I am very proud to hear my students appreciating opera. But, I have also found that my students genuinely have a much richer experience at the opera if I have properly prepared them. I set them up for the story they will see without giving too much away. I also share with them the context of the story, the composer’s history, and several connections to the music and stories they may already know.
None of these learning experiences would be possible without the Opera for Educators program. I have learned so much from the program that I turn around and share with my students. Beyond historical facts and stories, what’s most important to me is that the LA Opera guests and artists I speak to make me excited about opera. When I teach my students about opera, they can sense that excitement and they love it. Opera for Educators has helped me grow as an educator, because it has made me even more passionate about teaching and allowed my students to connect with the arts in new ways. That is invaluable.
Jessica Insco is a fine arts teacher in Los Angeles Unified School district. She specializes in vocal music and theatre. In addition to teaching students the art of loving the arts, she is also the director of student activities for Narbonne High School in Harbor City.
To learn more about our Opera for Educators program, click here.