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Chicago Opera Theater: Opera for All Student Program at Von Humboldt Elementary School
Deborah Oberschelp, Chicago Opera Theater
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Chicago Opera Theater (COT) offers a broad range of educational enrichment for all ages. Students in primary grades through high school benefit from COT’s Opera for All program in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). What makes COT’s Opera for All unique is its year-long presence and participatory emphasis. In the past seven years a team of teaching fellows has taught classes in opera, theater, voice, chorus, and violin to over 3,000 CPS students. Classes are taught weekly within the school day and culminate in a student-based opera production starring both children and COT Young Artists.

Highlights include productions of Noah’s Flood, She Never Lost a Passenger, Brundibar, and Finding Yolanda (adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta). This fall a new initiative, Opera Theater Workshop for Teens, was a huge success that will continue in the spring. In partnership with the city’s After School Matters program, COT offers an intensive 10-week course to 25 teens selected by audition from all across the city. COT’s education programs have expanded and developed under the supportive leadership of General Director Brian Dickie, whose vision for a sustainable opera future includes giving children under age 10 their first opera experience.

Nancy Farrell, a teacher at Von Humboldt Elementary, whose students have been involved with Opera for All for the past three years, writes:

“I saw a remarkable change in all the students that were a part of the chorus, as well as all of my class that still attend our weekly opera class. My students come from homes where the poverty level is 98 percent. They have a vocabulary deficit beginning school, so that any cultural exposure opens avenues that have never been traveled in their lives. I have noticed a general improvement in their writing skills and their vocabulary expansion. Academically, socially, and personally this experience has enriched their lives and our classroom learning.”


COT is midway through its third year in residence at Von Humboldt Elementary, a public school on the city’s west side. Each year the program has grown, and this year 10 teachers voluntarily signed up for the program, with an average of 29 students per classroom. The school must work hard to increase its reading scores and to that end COT has created a series of opera lessons that dovetail with chapter books to keep the focus on literacy. COT’s 2007 opening production on the main stage is Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses; the student project is based on that portion of Homer’s Odyssey. (Motto: If you liked Pirates you will love the Odyssey: sirens, sea monsters, and a one-eyed giant!)

In the violin classes students are rehearsing a simple accompaniment to the songs of our student Ulysses. With the violins and piano making up the orchestra, adding a simple set and costumes, the students will perform their production in March in the school auditorium for their peers and parents. Following the performance they will take a field trip to the Harris Theater in Millennium Park where a dress rehearsal look-in at COT’s Ulysses production will cap the experience.

Teacher Talk

Kelli Morgan is the lead teaching fellow at Von Humboldt Elementary School. Kelli described the Ulysses project’s first months:

“The beginning of the year was spent introducing the students to fundamentals of opera and theater and practicing the format of ‘re-dubbing’ the songs we are singing in the final performance. The students learned stage directions, the basics of acting, musical and operatic vocabulary terms, and the plot and characters of Homer’s Odyssey.

To introduce the libretto-writing lesson I began by giving the students a scene with certain words blank and omitted from the dialogue. Underneath the blanks I wrote noun, adjective, verb, in the format of MadLibs I did as a child. The students filled in the blanks on their own and we acted out the scenes in class, adding blocking and props along the way. After the students got the hang of ‘re-dubbing’ I began working on the song ‘It’s a Hard-Knock Life’ from the musical Annie. After teaching the notes and the original words I then gave the students a lyric sheet with parts left out, just as we had done with the scenes. The students suggested lyrics related to sea life and sailing. We will open the show with this number, singing on a ship after we defeated the Trojans and are on our way home to Ithaca.

As a class we voted on what lyrics we liked best. The classes now each have their own version of the song, varying from ‘It’s the hard-sea life’ to ‘It’s the stone-cold life,’ to the 2nd graders’ ‘It’s the laffy-taffy life.’ My goal is to have half of the show written by the students. I also began to notice early on that the students love rapping, especially the older boys, so I came up with an introduction rap of the background of The Odyssey before our show begins. I wanted a combination of chanting and singing in our opera, because it’s what the students respond to. I also thought it would go nicely over simple drum beats, claps, and the violin class playing simple chords underneath us. I was pleased to hear a few students practicing the rap on the playground one morning.

A puppet master and I will be building a giant head of Polyphemus for the show. The students drew a face of Polyphemus on a template and a winner from each class was chosen. Ralph, a very talented artist from one of my sixth-grade classes was chosen as the overall winner, and I am painting it on the Polyphemus puppet head. This provided a lesson in opera jobs that go beyond performing and also an opportunity to honor and incorporate student artwork in our design.”

Chicago Opera Theater is proud of its students and teachers. Our mission is to impart to each child that all are welcome at the opera no matter who they are or where they come from. For more information about COT and Opera For All contact Deborah Oberschelp, Director of Education and Operations, Chicago Opera Theater, or 312-704-8420, ext. 19.

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