Opera on the Net: Student Committees (Part 2 of 2)

Activity Overview: 

Seventh grade students from the United States and Sweden collaborate to create an original opera. The students assume committee jobs as they would in a professional opera company: production managers, stage managers, costume, set, and lighting designers, carpenters, public relations staff, writers, composers, and preformers. For details on the performance of the opera refer to "Opera on the Net: Collaboration and Performance."

The purpose of this opera exchange is to increase the participant’s knowledge of the opera process and to use opera as a vehicle to better understand the relationship music has with all arts and other disciplines across the curriculum. Students use a variety of technologies to make decisions throughout the creative process and to enhance their committee work.  Hands-on experience requiring a practical application of knowledge makes learning more meaningful and purposeful.  Committee assignments require students to learn responsibility, teamwork, and the art of compromising—important skills for their future working worlds.  The Swedish students improve their English skills-both written and oral, and bringing the Swedish and Riverside students together provides opportunities to experience global understanding firsthand.

The “Opera on the Net” project is an outgrowth of the “Creating an Original Opera Project” developed for U.S. teachers by the New York Metropolitan Opera Guild and the Royal Opera House in London for European teachers.  Carol Forristall, vocal music teacher from Riverside Middle School (Carson, Iowa) and Marie Melin and Pia Smith from Weiselgrensskolan (Helsingborg, Sweden) completed three levels of training and implemented the creative opera process with their respective students for the past seven years.  The students assumed jobs as they would in a professional opera company—production managers, stage managers, costume, set, and lighting designers, carpenters, public relations’ staff, writers, composers, or performers.  The process has now been expanded into a technology-based project.  7th graders in both countries together wrote an original opera through use of the Internet-primarily through e-mail and videoconference.  The students followed a structured time schedule with deadlines for all committee work throughout the entire 2001 school year.  Upon completion of the script and music, the Swedish and American actors rehearsed in preparation for their final week of production.  On May 9, 2001, sixteen Swedish students (made up of representatives of each of the opera committees) and the two teachers flew to Iowa for a final week of rehearsal with the Riverside students and five performances in the Grist Mill McCready Theater in Macedonia, Iowa.

(Note: This is a unit plan that may cover several days to several weeks. Not all of the following activities/standards will appear in the video clips used.)

In order to successfully implement this project, it is highly recommended that teachers take the first year of training given by the Metropolitan Opera Guild offered every summer.  A music teacher and a classroom teacher must train together for this project.  All decisions for all activities were made jointly by both countries through the use of e-mail and videoconference through the Iowa Communications Network.


Curriculum Standards from http://www.intime.uni.edu/model/content/cont.html


National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) Performance Indicators from http://cnets.iste.org/sfors.htm

PRE-COMMITTEE WORK--Students as a group select an opera company name (this year’s name)

WorldWideWriters.Oper@.com(pany) They develop a logo with Microsoft Paint for news releases and t-shirts, a theme, thesis, characters, needs, relationships, setting, names, ages, and genders, scenario, musical moments, and narrative. Students indicate on an audition preference sheet their top three choices for committee work. Instructors select committees.

Music (5-8):  6, 8 

Theater (5-8): 1, 3


Grades 6-8: 6, 7, 8 


COMMITTEE WORK--The writers develop the script complete with scenes, and the composers write lyrics and songs.  The set designers design the set with Total Home 3D and complete it with the carpenters help.  They make a list of props for the stage manager to obtain. The makeup and costume designers use the Cosmopolitan Virtual makeover to select makeup and hairstyles for the performers. They practice on the performers and select costumes for them.  The PR committee develops a t-shirt design using the logo and orders the shirts.  They print tickets, posters, invitations, banners, and programs with Print Shop and Print Shop Deluxe and create a PowerPoint presentation using the digital camera and Microsoft PowerPoint.  They call state and local media for coverage of the project and develop a Web page. Box office managers arrange for ticket sales.   Performers rehearse their lines and songs with their directors, and the musicians rehearse the music.


Music (5-8):  3, 4, 5, 6, 8  

Theater (5-8):  1, 2, 3

Grades 6-8:  6, 7, 8, 9

PRODUCTION WORK—The stage managers collect all props and organize the changing of the set for the production. The production managers prepare their speech for the opening and closing parts of the opera and organize the curtain call. Lighting designers select and rehearse their lighting choices.  The Swedish students arrive 10 days before the performance for committee work. All committees rehearse and present the final performances.  The PR committee organizes and serves refreshments after each evening performance and makes a videotape of each performance. They set up their PowerPoint for each performance. The composers make a CD recording of each performance.

Music (5-8):  1, 2, 5, 8 

Theater (5-8):  4, 6


Grades 6-8:  6, 7, 8

POST-PRODUCTION WORK—The PR committee edits the videotapes with the G3 computer and Avid Cinema and makes copies. The composers make copies of their CD recording.  All committees return props, costumes, etc.  Students watch the videos and write assessments of the entire activity. Swedish students return to Helsingborg, but e-mails continue between the two countries.   Plans are made for another exchange for an “Opera on the Net 2002” project with Riverside students traveling to Sweden this time.

Music (5-8):  6, 7, 8 

Theater (5-8):  7, 8


Grade 6-8:  6, 7, 8

Cosmopolitan Virtual Makeover. Broderbund. Available: http://www.virtualmakeover.com
Total 3D Home Deluxe 2.0. Broderbund. Available: http://Broderbund.com
MusicTime 2.0. Passport.  Available: http://www.macworld.com/1994/10/reviews/1011.html 
Avid Cinema. Avid Cinema.  Available: http://www.avid.com/products/index.html
Adobe Photo Deluxe.  Adobe.  Available: http://www.adobe.com
Adobe Photo Shop.  Adobe.  Available: http://www.adobe.com
Microsoft PowerPoint.  Microsoft.  Available: http://www.microsoft.com
Print Shop Deluxe.  Broderbund.  Available: http://www.broderbund.com
Microsoft Draw.  Microsoft.  Available: http://www.microsoft.com

TDK Digital Audio CD Recorder (DA-3826).  TDK. Available: http://www.tdk.com

The success of the final production depends on the completion of all jobs by ALL of the committees.  Committees not completing their work satisfactorily are very quickly identified by the students on other committees.  Media interviews and public presentations require students to reflect on their learning experiences.  Students write letters to future opera participants about their experience and complete a detailed questionnaire about their assignment including a rating scale of 1-10 on their committee work.  Viewing videotapes and listening to CD recordings of the performances, as well as response from the media and the audiences for the performances, also indicate the success of the project.

Carol Forristall—Opera Instructor at Riverside Middle Schoolcarforr@radiks.net

Pia Smith—Opera Instructor at WeiselgrensskolanPia.smith@stad.helsingborg.se

Marie Melin---Opera Instructor at Weiselgrensskolanmariemelin@swipnet.se

Mike Irwin—Technology Consultant at AEA 13 (Area Education Agency for Southwest Iowa)mirwin@aea13.k12.ia.us

Cindy Beattie---Riverside Technology Coordinatorcbeattie@riverside.k12.ia.us

Metropolitan Opera Guild Education at the Met—U.S. teacher training source www.operaed.org

In both countries, students in the 7th grade general music classes were involved in the opera process.  The project started in October of 2000 with the selection of a theme and culminated in May of 2001 with a joint performance by both countries in Iowa.  A fall time schedule was set up by the teachers for the initial writing of the opera.  Prior to Christmas break, the students in both countries agreed on a theme, a thesis, four characters from each country, character needs, relationships between the characters, the setting, names, ages, and genders for the characters, the scenario, musical moments, and the narrative. Following the Christmas break, the writers started on the script, the composers wrote the music, and all of the other committees began their work. Throughout this process all decisions were made jointly by the students in both countries through videoconference or e-mail. 

Since this is a very long project, in the video the opera committees who had finished their committee assignments discuss what they have done and evaluate their work.  The performers, production managers, stage managers, and lighting designers are seen implementing their work in the video of the actual performance.

At Riverside ALL students in the 6th grade for the past seven years have created original operas.  The “Opera on the Net” project has afforded one class a second chance at writing an original opera.  One of the greatest experiences I’ve observed every year is how students who sometimes tend to be discipline problems in the regular classroom really turn on to opera work.   This project really seems to have the power to stimulate the creative part of every child.  I’ve also discovered that my teacher relationship with my opera students is strengthened by their opera work.  Everyone has to work as a team to complete the opera, and this seems to carry over into other work we do together during the school year.  

Most music curriculums in schools today emphasize performing music through participation in a band, choir, etc. This project addresses a different aspect of the music curriculum—the creative and compositional part of music.  It allows the composers to pull together all of the skills and musical knowledge they have learned in elementary school and apply them in a hands-on way to create music.  For example, in this opera the composers had an opportunity to improvise some short melodies as underscoring for the opening scene.  

In Sweden two operas are performed—one in 5th grade in Swedish and one in 7th grade in English.  Test scores have shown  that students who participated in the opera program tend to score much better on their English exams than those who didn’t.   

Too often in education today music is placed “on the back burner” or even eliminated entirely because it is not as important as the basics—math, science, and reading.  This project shows how those subject areas can be taught very effectively and in an enjoyable setting through a musical form.  The technology component also has much to offer the students as it is in the technology area that many will find careers in the future.

Technology Resources:
Most of the technology was selected for this project because it was an alternative and more efficient and creative way to complete a committee task. For example, the makeup and costume committee used the Cosmopolitan Virtual Makeover to experiment with different hairstyles, face, and eye makeup. The program also necessitated the use of the digital camera and how to enter and use the pictures with the program. Students took pictures of the performers and gave them the look they wanted.   

The set designers and carpenters used Total 3D Home for the first time.  They made a floor plan of their sets and an audience view of the set.  They scanned this and sent it over to their Swedish counterparts—thus allowing them a neat, concise picture of their desired set design.   

The composers in both countries printed their music with the Music Time software and were able to send it back and forth. They used a keyboard lab to experiment with their improvised melodies and also used a TDK digital recorder to make a CD of the final performances and copies. 

The public relations committee used Microsoft Paint to produce the logo and Print Shop and Photo Shop to make banners for publicity, invitations, the opera program, posters, and thank-you notes.  They were able to send these to Sweden by using a color scanner and e-mail through the Internet. They also created a Web page (www.expage.com/operaonthenet) and used Adobe Photo Deluxe and Microsoft PowerPoint as well as the digital camera to create a PowerPoint presentation for the performances.  Videotapes of all performances were made with a VHS camera, and all tapes were edited into one tape with the G3M Mac and Avid Cinema.  Students also learned how to copy the final edited tape.  Throughout the process digital pictures were sent back and forth, and Riverside hosts and Swedish students e-mailed each other many times prior to the actual visit. 

The production manager as well as all other committees used the Iowa Communications Network Room for videoconferencing with Sweden about all aspects throughout the project.

School Background Information:
The Riverside Community School District is a reorganized school district containing the former Carson-Macedonia and Oakland Community School Districts.  The towns of Carson, Macedonia, and Oakland have a total population of approximately 2000.  The communities are all bedroom  communities to the Omaha/Council Bluffs metro area.  The majority of the parents commute to these two cities for their work with a smaller number involved in agricultural or other limited industries.  The Riverside Community School District has an enrollment (K-12) of 741 students.  The student population is almost entirely of Caucasian origin with the district having a special education enrollment of 106 students.  All students within the district are fluent in English.

Teaching Strategy:
As teachers, we are used to directing most of the learning for our students and ultimately making many decisions for them. This project is different because it emphasizes student responsibility.  Each committee assignment is treated like a job—students are held responsible for completing their job just as they would be in the real adult working world.  The teachers’ role is to help the students discover solutions to problems, etc., that arise through asking the “right” questions, which will help the student solve the dilemma without direct intervention by the teacher.  Many of my committees work on their own in the library, the computer lab, etc., without my direct supervision, so this responsibility concept is put to the test constantly throughout the process. Many of the students who have learned some of the technologies that can be applied to other areas serve as mentors for other students in other classes.  For example 5th grade students were mentored by some of the 7th grade PR committee on use of the Internet for their history days’ project. 

In order to implement technology in this project, I utilize my technology coordinator and the AEA technology specialist as much as possible.  I don’t have time during the day to sit down with one or two students and teach them how to, for example, scan a document—I usually have 20 other students in my classroom demanding my attention.  Also, my technology people attend workshops constantly and can advise me about what new things we can do with technology for this project.  They are the experts on technology and are very willing to help.

Technology as Facilitator of Quality Education Model Components Highlighted in This Activity http://www.intime.uni.edu/modelimage.html
(Note:  This is a unit plan that may cover several days to several weeks. Not all of the elements from the Technology as Facilitator of Quality Education Model that are described below will appear in the video clips used.)

Principles of Learning

Students were actively involved in the learning process—they weren’t reading about it in a book, they were living it. Students were also constantly encountering problems that needed to be solved.  For example, the Swedish set designers planned their set for a stage that had a curtain and discovered that the Riverside facility had no curtain.  The writers accidentally wrote one of the same scenes, and the composers mistakenly wrote some of the same songs.  Compromise and communication were a big part of the process—working together within each committee and ultimately the whole group.

Information Processing
All of the practical experiences make the activity more memorable and meaningful, and students begin to make connections between their opera work and the real world.  For example, one of the set designers realized that he was using knowledge from a Home Economics assignment about balance in a room design when determining where a basement window should be painted on the opera set.  Another public relations student realized that the skills he learned from writing letters for the opera might help him when making applications for college.  The writers were constantly revising and improving their work as they delved deeper into the characters and became more familiar with their needs and characteristics. As the students became more involved in creating the opera, they developed a greater Appreciation for opera and those who write operas.  When they attend any theater productions in the future, they will have a more discerning eye for the elements that contribute to the finished production.

Content Standards 
This project specifically addresses the national Music Standard # 9—“The relationship between music and other curriculum areas.”  Students learn how a musical form such as opera can be used to teach many other curriculum areas.  The various production committees use many other skills learned in their other classes to complete their opera assignment.  This is a unique music project because it unites music with technology to achieve the final product.

Students demonstrate tolerance because they must learn to listen to each other’s ideas and build on them.  The entire opera is built on one theme that is selected by a consensus of the entire opera company.  Through videoconference the students learn to share decisions with students from another country and reach an agreement through a discussion of potential solutions.  For example, in the early stages of the opera students were at a deadlock during one videoconference because both countries felt their logo was the best.  Eventually a solution was reached--put both of them together—a symbol of this entire project—cooperation and making decisions together.

Teacher Knowledge
Students in the 7th grade have a variety of learning styles. This opera project addresses many different learning styles—learning alone (ex--the actor performing a recitative), in pairs (ex—two set designers moving a table on and off stage), in small groups (ex-makeup artists applying makeup to the actors), or as part of a team (ex—the entire opera company). Consequently, there is a learning style in the mix for everyone.  Students are more motivated to learn when learning is fun—they have more inner motivation and don’t need so much teacher encouragement.  Many of the technologies are very hands-on and fun for the students and adapt very well to their age-level learning style. For example the Cosmoplitan Virtual Makeover software is a favorite with all of the students—not just the makeup committee.

Teacher Behavior
Students have a very clear idea of what the teacher wants them to accomplish because they have committee deadlines, and of course, the ultimate deadline—the opera performance for a live audience.  For example, the PR committee assigned each member a specific task for the opera program and knew that it had to be completed by the first matinee on Wednesday, May 16th.  The performers knew that their script and music must be memorized by the first rehearsal.

In order to do this “net” project with another country, technology was necessary for communication with Sweden almost every step of the way.  Students learn how to send e-mails and participate in a videoconference for their primary methods of communication.  They also learn how to use the ICN (Iowa Communications Network) room in their school. Almost every committee used some form of technology to complete their committee assignments.  For example, the composers use Music Time software to print their music, and the public relations committee uses a scanner to send the music to Sweden.  The set designers use Total 3D Home Deluxe to design their sets.

Student Characteristics:
All students have an opportunity at the beginning of the project to designate three committees on an audition form that interest them.  The students tend to gravitate towards a task that suits their strongest attributes.  Students have the ability in this project to embrace their learning differences because of the creative nature of the project.  The usual boundaries that exist in other classes are absent from this creative process.  In many cases students may be implementing basic training for a possible career path in the future through their committee assignment.  This project has the potential somewhere in the process of spark imagination and creative abilities in ALL students.

Evolution of the Activity:
When this project was started seven years ago, the only technology used was the opera program done with word processing.  The furthest thing from my mind was making this into a technology-based project.  After all, I was a music teacher—who needs to know much about computers to be a successful music teacher?  Now, every committee uses some type of technology.  The first opera contained five songs that were painstakingly written.  The “Opera on the Net” project contained twenty-three songs with many recitative-like numbers making the performance very operatic.  The ultimate goal for the future is to have the entire performance sung with no speaking. The writers on the first opera stopped the script three weeks before the performance due to lack of time. Now they have a very definite time frame in which to complete the writing.  The idea for an international project came from my love of traveling and the knowledge that there were teachers in other countries doing this project as well as US teachers. Why not get the students together for a great musical and international experience as well? This project has evolved into something more exciting every year, because it affords teachers an opportunity to use their creative minds to develop it in their own personal way.

(Learning activity format adapted from National Educational Technology Standards for Students Connecting Curriculum & Technology http://cnets.iste.org/students)