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The Crane School of Music, State University of New York-Potsdam: New Opera Teaches and Reaches New Audiences
Carleen Graham, Professor of Opera, The Crane School of Music, State University of New York-Potsdam
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EducationLink9/17/2007

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"The principal was really blown away when she found out that I sang in a production with a major operatic artist!"

"My sponsor teacher loved the study guide I helped create in class and we devised a similar one I used for student teaching."

"I think what sealed the deal for me [high school music teaching job] was the fact that I had worked on so many productions and knew how to build sets, costumes and stage manage full-scale productions."

These are a few of the comments from undergraduate students who participated in The Crane Opera Ensemble's premiere of The Sailor-Boy and the Falcon, an opera composed by Paul Siskind to a libretto by Alan Steinberg, based on The Sailor-boy's Tale, a short story by Isak Dinesen. The November 2006 performances featured professional mezzo-soprano and alumna Stephanie Blythe, singing with students of The Crane Opera Ensemble and Orchestra at The State University of New York-Potsdam (SUNY-Potsdam).

Producing a new work was an important educational goal, not only because it was a way to contribute to the operatic repertoire, but to also provide Crane School of Music students an opportunity to be involved in a new creative project from its inception. The Sailor-Boy and the Falcon was the culmination of over five years of planning and preparation. As it developed, the project seemed to take on a life of its own and also became an important fund-raising and educational outreach vehicle for the college. The Crane Opera Ensemble was awarded a substantial grant from the New York State Music Fund/Rockefeller Foundation towards creative, production and educational expenses, and received a State University of New York Center for University Advancement (SUNYCUAD) award for project excellence.

Educational outreach was an important component of the project. Practicum opportunities were provided for the music education students (cast members and those in a special course I taught in the fall 2006 semester, Teaching Opera to Children) to work with nearly 500 area public school children who attended the first performance. The students in the course created a detailed study guide, formulated lesson plans and traveled to schools throughout St. Lawrence County in New York State to prepare students to attend the performance. The music education students then met with their groups following the performance for a backstage tour, group discussion and lunch on campus.

One of the main reasons for the success and extended publicity for this project was Stephanie Blythe's involvement. Blythe's success in the professional opera world is a source of great pride for the institution. She is an unusually active alumna of the school and has donated a significant amount of her time and personal resources over the last several years. Her association with the project increased its quality, gave students an unusual opportunity to perform alongside a professional artist and provided connections to professionals in the opera world that would have otherwise not have been made. At the conclusion of the final performance with the entire cast onstage, Blythe was awarded the degree of Honorary Doctorate from The State University of New York.

The premiere weekend also provided an opportunity to host a panel discussion on opera education and singer training. Supported by the New York State Music Fund grant, a panel discussion, Opera, Education & the Future, was held onstage at Snell Music Theatre on Monday, November 20.

Joining Dr. Blythe were many professionals from the field of opera: F. Paul Driscoll, editor-in-chief of Opera News magazine; Dr. William Gustafson, director of Opera Theatre at the University of Colorado-Boulder; Gayletha Nichols, executive director of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions; James Robinson, artistic director of Opera Colorado and opera stage director; and Susan Shiplett-Ashbaker, musical consultant and vocal coach.

Three main questions were posed to the panel:
  1. What qualities do you feel accomplished, professional opera singers possess?
  2. What aspects of your life and education have you found to be the most beneficial to you now in your current profession?
  3. What do you feel about the current state of opera training, and if necessary, in which direction does it need to evolve in order to most effectively support the development of the next generation of artists?
The discussion resulted in the identification of five areas deemed critical for professional success:
  • Taking responsibility for learning and professional development
  • Developing and understanding vocal technique
  • Formulating and articulating ideas
  • Risk-taking and overcoming fear
  • Synthesizing all aspects of education and life
It may be more challenging for an institution such as The Crane School of Music to produce a new work, but the process made a lasting impression on the students. They clearly a positive perspective of opera and will most likely take that with them as they begin their own teaching careers and influence the next generation of opera audiences.

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