Costume and Set Design
This past year I facilitated two workshops with the Little Opera Wagner cast: one for scenic design, one for costume design.
During the workshops, we did Design Brain warmups, observing the world around us, considering the idea of scale by placing tiny people cutouts in found environments (in a jar of pencils, tucked in near a chair leg, etc.).
We viewed some professional costume renderings and the students offered theories about what kind of character these presented, based on what they were wearing.
The students were very astute in assessing the way a costume can tell a story about someone. We discussed what stories we all tell by choosing what clothes to wear each day. The students broke into groups, with each group responsible for one character in their opera. The groups made a life-size rendering (looking at scale from another perspective) by tracing one student's body onto butcher paper, then collaboratively drawing a costume rendering onto the outline.
For the scenic workshop, we discussed the idea of design challenges within a production, and how making an environment for the story to live in must address these challenges. Students made lists of locations required by their script and brainstormed visual cues to help the audience follow the story. Then, students broke into groups and created rough scale models of proposed scenic environments inside cardboard boxes.
During the Build day, students each created a section of wall for the magic house, incorporating a portrait of an ancestor or relative on one side and scary branches on the other side. These panels could be manipulated by the performers to evoke the mysterious, shifting landscape appropriate to the story.
Mona, 5th grade student at Set Building Day.
The Importance of Reflection
May 2014, Suzanne Vradelis
I have been a classroom teacher for about 24 years and one of the things I like the most about teaching is how the secret lives of individual children can totally surprise you. Being a teaching artist for Little Opera provides the most surprises because when children are engaged in the creative process, and really trust the adults facilitating, they are not afraid to share their secret thoughts.
This year, towards the end of the year right before the performances, I sat down with all the children who participated and asked them to think about one small moment that was important to them. We talked about the difference between listing of events. "I liked this and then I liked that", etc versus choosing one small aspect and really reflecting.
The pieces they wrote were a revelation. Many children knew exactly what I was after
because the whole process of creating an opera practices reflection on a constant basis.
An eight-year old wrote in detail about one experience during our customary silent rest period midway through our class time, explaining in detail the feel of her body, the ambient noise, the utter surrender of her mind in that relaxation time. A ten-year old described her conflict of being pulled away by a daydream in the middle of a teacher-led
warm-up. She wrote down the mental dialogue she was having with herself as she tried to stay to focussed because the activity was important, but the attraction of being lost in the clouds for a moment too.
Several children wrote marvelous accounts of simply choosing the fabric for their costume:
browsing the mounds of different materials, evaluating colors, and imagining the finished product.
I witnessed many wonderful, creative moments during the year with our opera students but reading their own words and realizing they learned many new things and were aware of those new things, was especially satisfying.
"When I first sang the opening chorus I noticed that I was singing differently. I sang so loud without screaming or shouting. I sounded strong like a real opera singer. I just wanted to keep
December, 2013, Claire Shaw
Inspired by the work of Jon Deak and the New York Philharmonic, we took the composition program at Little Opera to new heights this year.
In December 2013 we asked ourselves two big questions:
The answers came after reading about the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composer (VYC) program. “Basically, we’re turning the usual sequence of "First technique, then creativity" on its head. We validate and support the child's instinctive creations, then offer technical aid.” (Jon Deak, founder of VYC.)
This quote summed up exactly what we were attempting to do, and with this philosophy as our guide, we began to shape a new music curriculum - one with a focus on the teaching artist as mentor and scribe, and the child as the natural composer.
Our first step was to overcome an important barrier - notation. While some children were familiar with traditional music notation, most were not, and we were starting to feel that the later were not contributing as much as those who had more traditional music skills. They simply felt that they couldn't.
To help the students articulate their ideas in a way that made sense to them, we asked each of them to create their own graphic notation. A mix of lines, dots, shapes, and splodges emerged. We called these their rhythmic composition keys.
But the children decided to take it a step further. They added their own expression and articulation markings - leaves represented a whisper, a flame was the symbol for silence, a circle getting gradually bigger meant that the music should get louder.
While some students began to incorporate traditional music notation into their work as the year progressed, elements of their composition keys stayed with them - helping both them and the musicians working with them translate their ideas.
Story Writing - Humperdincks
October, 2013, Erin Bregman
One of the story writing highlights of the year came early in the season with the Humperdincks (1st-3rd graders). They had most of an outline for The Crystal Diamond Heart, but were at a point where they didn’t know what would happen next.
Because an opera will ultimately end up onstage, it has to work as a dramatic piece of writing. I decided to use that to our advantage. Sitting in a circle with the students, I started at the beginning. “The Coo-Coo bird is far away, and missing home. Show me you’re missing home.” Thirteen faces became homesick. “The villain overhears the Coo-Coo bird. Become the villain as he listens.” And at once, I was surrounded by eavesdropping villains.
We went through the whole story this way, until it wasn’t just a story the students knew, it was one they could feel and see. When we came to the end of what was written, I kept going. “The villain sees the fake crystal diamond. What does he do?” Thirteen villains pick up an imaginary crystal diamond. One of them began smelling it, soaking up all of its power. “The villain smells the power. What does that look like?” Every villain took giant whiffs of imaginary crystal diamond power. “But it’s a fake. What does a fake smell like?” One of the villains threw in a sneeze. The sneeze made the villain drop the crystal, and it broke to pieces on the ground. Deciding what happened next was easy.
The creativity of children and how they gravitate toward the most expressive way of musically telling their story
March 2014, Jenny Hanson
We were working on an aria where the character is very angry and frustrated because he has been deceived.
As I always do, I gave the kids a line of the text and they sang it back to me. In this case the text was "I should have known."
They sang a descending group of pitches. I interpreted this as a descending major chord, which I played back for them on my flute. They were happy with the sound.
I few minutes later they were all singing that spot in the aria together, and their descending line changed to something more sinister. They had added a tritone to the chord.
When I played back this new idea one of the students said "Wow, that sounds like a real opera!"
Listen to the clip below to see what composing with children sounds like.
Wagners compose Grandpa's Aria with Jenny Hanson and the Humperdincks compose the Warrior Chorus with Claire Shaw.
March 2014, Eva Langman
Kids are instinctively musical. That is, until you ask them, “What does your character
sound like?” Silence. “Is her voice high or low? Does she whine or whisper?”
Apparently, these characters were mute.
I took a step back. This was the crucial scene in our opera when the rebellious teenager, Luna, is punished by her parents, who have caught her stealing candy from a store. I thought, let’s start with exploring our characters’ feelings in this setting. The voice lives first and foremost in the body, after all.
I asked each of them to show me, in physical form, what it felt like to be in their particular situation. I saw slumped shoulders, a pouty mouth, hands across the chest. (Luckily, this was a reaction to my instructions, not a revolt against them.) Another student stood up in a menacing pose, eyes wide with anger. I seized the opportunity. “Now,” I guided them, “Let a sound emerge that expresses how your character is feeling right now.” Within a few moments, there were several voices alive at once — softly, at first, then with more exuberance and dedication.
Singing without words is not an entirely familiar experience so I let the students play around in that space for a few minutes, suggesting they get louder or quieter,
experiment with some syncopation. It was joyous and dynamic. There were little
islands of emotion cropping up here and there, and the kids were making thoughtful
and authentic choices. And in the simultaneity of four students babbling and
snickering, humming and grunting and sighing, I heard a melody take root. They did, too.
Costume and Set Design Building Day Slideshow
April & May 2014
An inside look at a day of creation at Little Opera
Humperdincks compose their own legato and staccato rhythmic phrases
November , 2013
Fiction Quartet Interpret a Visual Humperdinck String Quartet
Little Opera students learn turns inspired by West Side Story
Season 3 Dress Rehearsal In Pictures