Creating Story & Writing Libretto
Where this season's stories came from: 2 approaches
We have created a fairly streamlined process for creating stories out of nothing at Little Opera, and this season we learned two new things:
The process we use for our youngest two groups (2nd-5th grades) is the same exact process we have used to great success with our adult opera-in-a-day workshops in the past. We begin with an exploration of heightened, operatic emotion, and after asking student to select one (terror; joy; heartbreak), each student quickly sketches a setting that would make them feel that emotion. Students then sketch two characters who they imagine could inhabit those settings, and they write down what each character wants and fears as they sketch.
To begin creating the class's opera story, we put all of the settings into a hat, and choose one of them at random. That becomes the setting for our opera. Next, we put the character sketches in the hat, and choose two of them at random. The story of those two characters in that setting is where our opera begins.
We quickly learned that our middle school students demanded more control over the nuances of setting and character for their story this season. Instead of using chance to kickstart their story, we decided to start with a piece of source material that the students were excited by. In the end, they chose this article about the burning of the cliff house in 1907, which set the scene for their tragic/comic/romantic opera Deja vu Tango.
Libretto Excerpts from this season's student-written operas
From Deja vu Tango, Grades 6-7
From Tragedy of Tragedies, Grades 3-5
Little Opera meets New Play Development
When we asked Little Opera families for suggestions last May on how we could make the program even better, one particularly insightful parent wrote:
“It might be interesting if the kids could do a workshop type thing, maybe in January, to hear questions from the audience and so they can add details for the final spring performance. Most of the comments from family and friends are that they don’t understand the story…but the kids have ready answers and might have incorporated them, given enough time.”
It was a spot-on observation, and a brilliant idea. As a playwright, I spend a fair amount of time immersed in the world of new play development, and set out to investigate what the new opera workshopping process looks like.
After hearing more than once that new opera workshops are rare, I was lucky enough to connect with Jim Schaeffer at the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York, who happens to specialize in new opera development.
His advice? Break it down:
Shapes, Rules, and Melody
There are many different ways to approach writing music. Sometimes you start with a rhythmic idea, or an interesting chord progression. Often the first step is a to write a little bit of melody. No matter what element you start with, you end up filling in the blanks later, and in most cases you end up juggling all of these elements simultaneously. When teaching composition to kids, I find it helpful in the beginning to focus on each of these elements separately.
This past Tuesday, we focused on the ingredients of a good melody. Our challenge: How to you take seven notes and arrange them in a way that makes sense? The answer: Give them an interesting shape (melodic contour) and use a combination of repetition and contrast (form).
Below are the step we followed to create our melody.
1. Sing “Follow the Drinking Gourd“— Identify different sections(A, B, C). How many times do we hear A? Are there different versions of A?
2. Create the melodic contour by mapping a melody, using the same method as story arc.
As we worked, we thought about a few additional things:
Here’s what Susanna’s melody sounded like at the end of the process
Composing at Little Opera: The NON-composer's perspective
Even though I’ve spent quite a bit of time with modern composers, the process of composing itself has always seemed mystical elusive to me (as I imagine it might seem to most people). Do you just sit at the piano and simply plunk out different sounds until something ‘clicks?’ Do you create some kind of structure and then try and work within that? What does this process even look like?
Luckily, our composers are both experts at their craft, and can also reshape that craft into words, games, and questions that are perfect for the Humperdincks to explore. They are also starting with lyrics our students have already written. As a result, they have quite a bit to work with, and so they started by asking the kids a series of questions.
Since we’ve been writing about, drawing, and acting these characters for a while now, our kids have really concrete ideas about what the characters look like, act like, and sound like. They’ve been rolling these giraffes, lost girls, and ice spiders around in their minds for quite a while…and it shows.
Our composers also worked with the kids using their Composer’s Toolbox – a set of cards developed earlier in the season that had all sorts of musical choices. Should this song sound bumpy or smooth, loud or soft, should it have a rhythmic pattern? The most popular cards were then used in the piece.
While this was fun to watch and take part in, I want to emphasize that the process our Humperdincks are working through is often difficult for college-age students! This is high-level learning, melding ideas about characters, emotions, sounds, rhythm, and language into something cohesive and entertaining. Our Humperdincks are filling a tall order, and I couldn’t be more excited for what comes next – dance, staging, and learning the songs we’ve just written.
Building compositions, one slide whistle at a time
Ideas at Little Opera are often contagious. When you’re surrounded by dangerously clever kids and adults for hours at a time, strategies for opera-making are abound, and it’s easy for the best of them to rub off. This has certainly been the case with composing this year – music composition, which, as my teacher once said, normally falls into two schools of pedagogy: “it can’t be taught!” and “it shouldn’t be taught!”
Like myself, fellow Little Opera composers-in-residence Alex and Jenny disagreed with this statement, and set about finding a way to give our younger operatically inclined friends the know-how to write their own music. Almost immediately, I latched onto a two key concepts imparted by my composerly comrades:
With these nuggets of wisdom in hand, I sought out how to work with my group (ambitiously dubbed the “Wagners”) to prepare them to become smart, savvy music makers, ready to tackle the daunting challenge of opera composition.
Since we are only a few months into our musical journey, I can’t claim to have perfected my recipe for composing success. However, I’d love to share with you a few of my recipe’s key ingredients at the moment: a few sheets of paper, post-its, and… of course… slide whistles.
Let’s start with the paper. It occurred to me early on that there are a LOT of ways to describe music, and even a single note: loud, soft, long, short, high, low… and when you add even more notes, a whole new can of worms is opened. How is one to make sense of it all, much less decide on parameters to choose when composing? It then occurred to me that when we decide to sing a note, we’re making a choice that rules out its opposite – a note can’t be loud AND soft, short AND long. When thinking in binaries, the task of deciding which musical traits to choose becomes easier: “AND” becomes “OR.” To illustrate this, I made five cards with opposing musical terms on either side:
Suddenly, the treacherous pile of descriptive terms became a veritable flip-book of musical possibilities for the Wagners. A familiar song like “Brother John” could go from an impish jig to a somber dirge with just a few flips of our handy cards. Indeed, the limitations imposed on us by these simple musical “OR” decisions gave us more flexibility than ever before!
After testing out these new creative tools on a tune, we tried applying them to an important operatic concept – emotion. From a previous exercise, the Wagners had amassed an array of post-it notes with a different emotion listed on each. Drawing one at random, each Wagner was challenged to pick what they felt were the appropriate musical qualities for their emotion.
Later, we tried putting our tools to a different test by composing music for two scenes from the Orpheus myth using our new favorite instrument: slide whistles. With our cards in hand and previous work with emotions fresh in our minds, we figured out the musical qualities that would accompany each of these scenes:
In the end, our creative tools not only helped us paint these scenes with ease – their restrictive “this OR this” nature actually made it easier for us to make interesting decisions on the fly. Had we not been able to musically articulate the contrast of, say, Orpheus in the woods with the indifference of nature, we would have ended up with a far less magical result. After all, what else is composing but a little know-how, practice, and magic?
Insights from the Little Opera classroom
When we are young, we are encouraged (one hopes) to learn a little about everything, to experiment with an array of art forms and disciplines to see if any of those languages resonates particularly strongly with who we are and who we are becoming. All those things we are introduced to as young people are potential pathways for our expression, and we are excited by the seeming limitlessness of perspectives on the world.
When I think of Little Opera, as often I do, I see a group of sensitive, intelligent, funny kids with opinions and talents and a blossoming artistic consciousness. I also see a group of kids that is happily still on the side of the threshold where the process of discovery and questioning (and rebellion, naturally) is the guiding force.
Little Opera students express almost equal excitement for all the activities we plan for them, whether it involves singing or improvising a skit, making costumes on paper or writing a poem about their character. When was the last time you had the opportunity to express yourself in all those ways – and realize how adept you can be at whatever you tried? I love teaching these kids; they remind me how important it is for educators to keep those doors — and their own minds — open to the different ways proficiency can manifest. I am lucky to be a guide for their unbounded curiosity, or what we like to call the creative chaos of figuring stuff out.
Little Opera does not promote a conservatory approach, and I love that. It is the multiplicity of influences and opportunities that the Little Opera curriculum provides that keeps the channel open to all kinds of connection.
A different kind of conversation
I have been a classroom teacher for about 26 years, mostly teaching seven to nine-year-old children in public school. This is my third year as a Teaching Artist for Little Opera. Before Little Opera, I worked with my regular classroom students making mini-operas as in partnership with San Francisco Opera’s ARIA program. I have been thinking about the differences between working with children in a small after-school program and during a regular school day, trying to accomplish essentially the same thing. And it is so very different!
At Little Opera, I work with around 12 students after school, with at least one other teacher, so we are able to have a new kind of creative relationship than any I’ve been able to experience in the past. Conversation. It’s the conversations that make such an impact on the process of creating something, especially something so complicated as opera with the many facets and pieces that all need to work together. We are creating and collaborating on many levels across many disciplines simultaneously, which makes it a heady and rich experience. What feeds student and teacher alike are the opportunities to contemplate, puzzle over, question and explore with each other.
We made some awesome mini-operas when I worked with a whole classroom of students during the school day, but looking back I can see that the adults and the children that had the leadership, ready creativity and skills already drove the process, and others came along and learned from it. With our intimate after-school group, everyone is ruminating, exploring, succeeding, failing, reflecting and refining. And we aren’t doing it in a vacuum because we have time for creative conversation — little ones and big ones, personal ones and group ones, musical conversations that we sing and silent conversations that we dance.
I retired from full-time classroom teaching three years ago, but I still teach two days a week at the same school. I started working for Little Opera the following year. I loved my full-time teaching job but felt compelled to truly immerse myself in the creative conversations of children (and other teaching artists), and that is what drove my decision. It’s not like it was impossible to have that experience in a classroom of 22-plus kids, but my, oh my, there are so many more of those rich conversations after school in Little Opera.
Building Sets, Props & Cotumes
One of the highlights of the Little Opera season is our annual Building Days: two days where volunteer artists in the community join our students for a full day of building their sets & props or costumes together from scratch. Here's a peek at what this season's building days looked like.