Making Children’s Literature Come Alive—With Opera!



Rationale:
Good readers build complex worlds around the stories they read (Pat Enciso’s research). In order to translate a story from one medium to another, from written book to the stage, students have to build a world—they have to infer details and imagine action.
Writing an opera includes working with the sounds of words in order to make rhymes. This experience reinforces sound/print connections.
Furthermore, students prosper in a classroom where multiple semiotic systems are in play—this accounts for “learning styles” and for multiple intelligences. Opportunities to work with the arts give all children a chance to shine.
Finally, large, “difficult” projects, successfully accomplished, give students a sense of competence and pride.
The purpose of creating an opera is to give students a multi-media experience around building the world of a story.

Materials:
Rhyming dictionaries for groups of students (at least one per group). Other materials are optional (such as stuff for backdrops, costumes, instruments—see below).

Procedures:
1.Story selection. Choose a story that everyone knows and likes. Fairy tales work well, but any narrative (with beginning, middle, ending, characters, setting, plot) would work. You could review stories that have been read in class, have students bring in their favorite books for consideration, pull a story from an author study, or just pick a well-loved tale. I often have students brainstorm around fifty possible stories. Then they vote in order to choose the story. I allow students to vote for as many stories as they wish during the first round(s) of selection because this means that the majority of students will have voted for the story that wins (rather than being disappointed that “their” chosen story didn’t get chosen by the group). If there is a tie, we have a run-off, but even with everyone voting for as many stories as they like, there is usually a clear-cut winner.
2.Retelling events. Have students help to retell the story and place the events on the chalkboard so everyone can see them. Ask students what the first event would be, and then what happened, and then what happened next. Encourage students to just report the event (rather than getting into specific conversation) and, if necessary, summarize the event yourself after they have given all the specifics. It is particularly important to do this when working with fairy tales so that everyone agrees on the version. I try to get students away from the Disney versions because there are so many other versions. I have had students translate fairy tales into modern times in order to avoid Disney.
3.Group the events. Think about the number of students in the classroom. How many groups of four to five students each are available in your classroom? That’s how many groups of events you should have. Each group of students will take a group of events to dramatize.
4.Dramatize the story. Without worrying about dialogue or music or anything, have the students act out their group of events. In other words group one acts out the beginning of the story. Group two acts out the events that happen next, and so on to the end of the story. The purpose of this part of the activity is to make sure the students fully flesh out their set of events. It also helps each group to see other groups’ approaches to the story.
5.Music possibilities. Typically, I have recycled songs—students write new words to old music. In that situation, we brainstorm songs that everyone knows and use that “bank” of songs on which to base the opera. However, we are going to have students (children and college students) make up their own music, using the pentatonic scale (the black notes of the piano). College students will be responsible for recording the music on paper so it can be preserved and taught to the whole group.
6.Writing the opera.
a. Discuss the following with students, realizing that many of them may not be able to put these ideas in action, but some will and the opera can be edited. Ask them how events take place in a play. What you are getting at is that events are not narrated—in other words, the players don’t say he or she, they usually work in first and second person (I, we, you). Also they tend to work in present tense rather than past tense.
b.Tell students that they might need to use several songs in order to get their events across. They might write a song about what a character is thinking, doing, or planning when that character comes on the stage. For example, the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is probably thinking about what he is going to eat and as he walks down the path, he is likely to sing about that. They can also write conversations between two or more characters.
c.Show the students how rhyming dictionaries work. They are a special type of dictionary that organizes words by the sound of the end of the word rather than by the first letter of the word. My students have found them to be intriguing. For young students, you might have to play with the rhyming dictionaries awhile for them to become used to them and to be able to use them as a tool.
d.Now let the groups go at it. This might be a very good activity for adult volunteers to be involved with. Adult volunteers can help kids think of how to cast events into song and can write down ideas quickly as children think of them. Encourage groups to consult with each other about events and characters as needed. Monitor the groups yourself. Once in awhile, something can go awry and you may need to step in. For example, in one class, many years ago, students began to make the wicked witch character a satire on an unpopular teacher. You may need to step in to make sure that students’ choices are reasonable ones for public performance. It is better to step in during the conceptualizing and writing of the scenes than to wait until students feel they are finished.
e.Make the whole opera available to everyone (on overhead or typed copy) and try it out. The class may have suggestions about how to edit words to make them fit the songs better. Where there is confusion, have the group that did a particular song sing it for the whole group so everyone can hear what they were intending to do.
7.Once the opera has been written, it can be a good idea to have an “editing committee,” consisting of at least one member from each group. The editing committee can make sure that the poetry scans reasonably well and that the opera is cast in first and second person. Usually in each group there is at least one person who really likes to write. Often that person will volunteer for the editing committee. Thus the editing committee offers good writers an excellent challenge.
8.Performance considerations. The whole opera can be sung by a large group of students and a smaller group of students can mime the characters. This way no one has to sing solo (which is a source of concern among my students). Younger students may enjoy doing solos, so don’t eliminate that possibility. Choose how your group will perform the opera—who will play each character and whether or not there will be solos.
9.Options for performance.
a.Instruments. You can make instruments out of recycled materials and have the large group of students accompany themselves on instruments. When I have made instruments with students, I have challenged groups of students to make at least one of each: aerophone (wind instrument), chordophone (stringed instrument), membranophone (uses a membrane—mostly drums), and idiophone (an instrument whose sound is a result of the unique materials used in its construction, such as bells, maracas, kazoo, rain stick). I have done word study with the prefixes and suffixes of the words that describe these instruments.
b.Backdrops. My teaching partner, Don Duncan, came up with a wonderful process for creating backdrops. Each writing group was to come up with a backdrop for its scenes (you might have to organize it differently depending on whether or not there is repetition of scenes—the point is to have each group of students working on a backdrop). On sketch paper, each student in the group sketched the elements they thought should be in the backdrop. After five minutes of sketching, the students were instructed to switch papers with someone else in the group and to continue sketching on that other person’s sketch. They switched a couple more times. After two or three switches, they had four or five different sketches and a sense of what elements were common to all. They also had an idea of who was good at drawing what. They came up with a composite sketch of the backdrop, which they then transferred to a 4x8’ piece of paper and painted with tempera paint.
c.Dance and movement. My other teaching partner, Mary Tinsley, blocked our production and she and the students developed simple dance movements where appropriate (for the tornado and for moving down the yellow brick road). However, in reading students’ accounts of their own participation in the opera experience, I realized that the students had wanted control over the staging, just as they had control in the writing of the opera. To give the maximum number of people a chance to try their hand at directing, a workshop on directing and choreography could be held and then the small groups could be responsible for directing and choreographing the scenes they created.
d.Costumes. We wanted to do papier mache masks but ran out of time. We ended up with costumes put together by the students (Glenda the Good Witch wore her prom dress and she was chosen to play Glenda on the basis of owning that particular dress). Costumes can be as simple as a single prop (an oil can for the Tin Wood Man) or as complicated as a full outfit.
10.Perform. We found a daycare center and performed there. It is amazing how the prospect of a performance focused the students on what they were doing. There is a lot of work that goes into creating and performing this opera. You may want to schedule a couple of performances—one for your school and one for a daycare or a retirement center. You may find, as we did, that opportunities for performance arise spontaneously as people find that you have written an opera.
11.Evaluate. I am having students self-evaluate. I did notice that students who were weak in one area shone in another.
12.Grow. I have done this activity for ten years in a variety of settings. Recently, the opportunity to work with my co-teachers allowed me to be a part of taking this opera to a new level—performing at a day care center with props and backdrop and everything. The opera is an excellent opportunity to collaborate with other teachers and volunteers.


Opera 09 Rehearsals, script, chords


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"Opening Song"
Tune: "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better"
Holly: My name is Holly, I'm the news reporter.
From Channel 2 have I got news for you

Chorus: Tell us more
Holly: Wait and see
Chorus: Tell us more
Holly: Wait and see

Holly: Tonight we’ll hear from this alleged villain
You may have heard of him from many tales.

Holly: Big bad wolf
Wolf: Alex T.
Holly: Big bad wolf
Wolf: Alex T.
Holly: Big bad wolf
Wolf: Alex T.
Holly: Alex T.

Wolf: I was in the kitchen
Holly: What were you a fixin’?
Wolf: A cake I was bakin’
A gift I was makin’
For my Granny’s big birthday


Aw Man! No sugar! (spoken)

Then I started sneezin’
A coughin’ and a wheezin’
Next I started sweatin’
The flu I was getting’
What could help this big bad flu?

Holly: You need some Aleve (spoken)
Wolf: Will that help a sneeze? (spoken)
Holly: Sure!

Wolf: So I set out to go borrow some sugar
Where to look first? I think I’ll try next door.







“If I Were a Rich Pig”
(Tune of “If I Were a Rich Man”)

If I Were a Rich Pig, Oinky Oinky Oinky….etc.
Then I’d have a house built of gold, if I were a wealthy pig.
I wouldn’t have to work hard, Oinky Oinky…
I would frolic in the mud all the day, if I were a muddy messy pig.
But I’m broke and I couldn’t build my house out of out gold or bricks or sticks.
So I was left to scrounge on the ground for straw.
Now I’m scared and sitting by the TV watching nightly news in the dark,
Hearing tales of wolves with sharpened claws. OH……
If I were a rich pig, Oinky Oinky…
Then I’d have a house built of gold if I were a muddy messy, yaidle deedle, oinky wealthy pig.


Wolf and Pig 1 Interaction
(Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?)


Oh little pig…..are you in? I have a question for you.
I’m baking a cake for my dear grandma…(wolf feels sneeze coming on)…..AH CHOO!!!!

I know you are home….please come to the door. I need some sugar from you.
I won’t be a bother that’s all that I want…….just one cup will do.
AH CHOO!!!! (house falls down)

Let My Piggy Go
(Go Down Moses)

He looks so good just lying there.
(Let my piggy go)
My tummy is empty and bare
(Let my piggy go)
Should I…….eat him? Or should I let him go?
Bacon…….Sausage.

(You didn’t let him go)


“Home in the Woods”
(Tune of “Home of the Range”)


Oh give me a home where the wolves never roam,
And a house made of sticks just for me.
It’s sturdy and strong, yes my brother was wrong.
Tucked away where the wolf cannot see.
Home, home built of sticks,
That I built with my own two hoofs
I gathered the wood, just as quick as I could
And it’s safe from the floor to the roof.



Wolf and Pig 2 Interaction
(Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?)


Oh little pig…..are you in? I have a question for you.
I’m baking a cake for my dear grandma…(wolf feels sneeze coming on)…..AH CHOO!!!!

Go Away, wolf! I’m busy today. I cannot let you in.
I have a date with Miss Piggy tonight….so I’m shaving my chinny chin chin.

I know you are busy….please come to the door. I need some sugar from you.
I won’t be a bother that’s all that I want…….just one cup will do.
AH CHOO!!!! (house falls down)


Let My Piggy Go
(Go Down Moses)

He looks so good just lying there.
(Let my piggy go)
My tummy is empty and bare
(Let my piggy go)
Should I…….eat him? Or should I let him go?
Bacon…….Sausage.

(You didn’t let him go)


“Blow My House Down”
(Tune of “Blow the Man Down”)


Come all you young piggies and listen to me, wolf can’t blow my house down!

I’ve gone off to college to earn a degree, that wolf will never blow my house down!

I took all my classes in engineering, wolf can’t blow my house down!

It quaint and it’s lovely and has a porch swing, that wolf will never blow my house down!

I chose for my house to be built out of bricks, wolf can’t blow my house down!

They’re better than straw and they’re better than sticks, that wolf will never blow my house down!

Wolf and Pig 3 Interaction
(Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?)


Oh little pig…..are you in? I have a question for you.
I’m baking a cake for my dear grandma…(wolf feels sneeze coming on)…..AH CHOO!!!!


Get out of here wolf, I know what you did,Don’t bother me again.
I won’t let you in by the hair on my chin,
And your granny can sit on a pin.

Nosy Neighbor Song and 911 Call
(A Modern Major General)
To the audience:

I am a nosy neighbor and you'll never guess what I just saw
A wolf and pig were arguing and then it turned into a brawl
I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and then I looked outside again
The wolf was banging on the door I think he must be breaking in

On the Phone:
Hello daisy, this is Rose, you'll never guess what I just saw
A wolf and pig were arguing and then it turned into a brawl
I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and then I looked outside again
The wolf was banging on the door I think he must be breaking in

On the Phone with another neighbor:
Hello Ivy this is Daisy wait to hear what Rose just saw
A wolf and pig were arguing and then it turned into a brawl
The wolf broke in and killed the pig and then he went to rob the place
The way these wolves are prowling 'round I think that none of us are safe.

On the Phone with Aunt Petunia:
Hello Aunt Petunia- shut your windows lock your door and hide
A big bad wolf has come to town, he's scaring pigs, a few have died.
He's breaking in, he's robbing homes, he's sneaking round and being rude
No one here is safe from him, he's got a nasty attitude

Spoken: CALL THE COPS!

Hello this is 911 please tell me your emergency
Please calm down we're on our way I'll quickly send a deputy
We're on our way to save the day
We'll be so fast, we won't delay,
Nothing will keep us from our prey
We'll catch that evil wolf today!

WRAP-UP
(Anything you can do...)

My name is Holly I'm the news reporter,
From Channel Two, that's today's news for you.

We thought that you should know 'bout all this wolf stuff
We'll let you know about any breakthroughs.

Wolf: I was framed!
Chorus: Tell the judge!
Wolf: I was framed!
Chorus: Tell the judge!
Wolf: I was framed!
Chorus: Tell the judge, tell the judge!
Wolf: I was framed!




















Here's the finished product. Sorry for the low quality--was recorded on a camera, not a videocamera.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtReVmYjmTE