Feature stories

Metropolitan’s HD Live in Schools Program sparks love and learning

‘Changed forever’ by opera

Backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, Sylvia Messina, a student in the opera clas Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera

Backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, Sylvia Messina, a student in the opera class from Susan Wagner HS on Staten Island, dreams of being fitted for a costume herself one day.

PS 131, Brooklyn, 3rd-graders who attended the world-premiere Met production of Miller Photography

PS 131, Brooklyn, 3rd-graders who attended the world-premiere Met production of “The Enchanted Island” discuss the opera over breakfast with their teacher Helen Berry.

Susan Wagner HS students get a sense of the vastness of the Met stage behind the Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera

Susan Wagner HS students get a sense of the vastness of the Met stage behind the burgundy velvet curtain.

Don Jose, mad with jealousy, stabs the fiery gypsy Carmen in the heart as the crowd roars for her lover in the bullring.

Butterfly’s long, lonely dream of the return of her American husband is dashed when he arrives with his new wife to claim his son.

“Out, damned spot!” laments Lady Macbeth as she scours an invisible bloodstain on her guilty hands.

Students in the opera class from Susan Wagner HS on Staten Island have thrilled to these striking scenes live on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.

For Sylvia Messina, the Thursday after-school opera class “is my favorite part of the week. It changed my life.” The diminutive soprano, who will appear in the upcoming school production of “Sweeney Todd,” has turned her back on Broadway for the world of grand opera.

“I’ve learned so much, not just about music and voice and instruments but about history and languages,” Messina said.

Wagner HS students were discussing Macbeth’s madness following a morning dress rehearsal of the Verdi opera as they made their way to a Q-and-A session with a Met stage director, followed by a tour backstage.

The March 7 visit to the world-famous opera house was part of the Metropolitan’s HD Live in Schools Program. That program, now in its fifth year, provides equipment to transmit live opera between five and eight times a year directly into a high school auditorium in each borough: Long Island City HS in Queens; Wagner HS on Staten Island; Celia Cruz Bronx HS of Music at the Lehman College campus; the Grand Street Campus HS in Brooklyn; and Washington Irving HS in Manhattan. Students and teachers across each borough are invited to attend at the host schools.

In preparation for each live broadcast, the Metropolitan’s education department provides a comprehensive educator’s guide with background material, a variety of enrichment activities, librettos in English and the language of the opera, and a CD of highlights from each of the scheduled works.

Music teacher Chris Cipollo, the impresario of the Wagner opera class, said that the opera curriculum ties together threads from Wagner’s rich academic and arts curriculum, which includes five bands, vocal groups, theater productions and art electives.

“Studying opera crosses over into the academic curriculum,” said Jaqueline Bergland, the choral director at Celia Cruz Bronx HS of Music. She pointed out that her students were able to relate to minimalist Philip Glass’s landmark 1980 opera “Satyagraha,” which is based loosely on Gandhi’s early activities in South Africa, because they had studied the Indian pacifist in class. “That tie-in takes them to another level,” she said.

Both music teachers had high praise for the Met materials. “There is so much material that you can pick and choose what works for your group,” Cipollo said.

Bergland said her students’ initial resistance to opera has vanished; now, she said, they beg for a chance to attend the Met performances. “My voice students now are convinced they will appear on the Met stage one day,” Bergland said with a chuckle.

The Met guide to “Carmen,” which is the Wagner class favorite so far, makes curriculum connections to social studies and English language arts with learning objectives that probe the meaning of liberty and responsibility in selected works of literature, analyze Carmen’s life choices and relationships, and explore their own personal understanding of liberty and responsibility. The guide also suggests asking students to create contemporary “Carmen” stories.

Workshops preceding each scheduled opera are held at the Met for all city teachers.

The culminating activity is, of course, enjoying the opera. For teachers interested in going beyond the annual repertoire of HD broadcasts, the Met offers them the rare opportunity to bring students to works in progress — live dress rehearsals.

Deborah Birnbaum, a Met vocal coach, led a workshop on “La Traviata” at the Met for teachers on March 8 and the following week conducted a vocal workshop for voice majors on the Celia Cruz campus.

An annual three-day national conference for the Met program’s 207 teachers representing 115 schools across the country and the 500 teachers in 300 schools in the New York area is held each summer at the Met to promote techniques and strategies to bring opera into the classroom.

It’s never too early to begin. The 3rd-graders at PS 131 in Borough Park are already opera buffs. “The trick is to choose operas that work for younger children, like those attached to myths and fairy tales,” says their teacher Helen Berry.

For the older students, their delight in this new world of tragic, comic and romantic opera is palpable. According to Cipollo, “They are changed forever.”

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