Opera Program Planning
When planning a creative aging program in opera, there are several important factors to consider including:
Program Location and Population
Opera learning programs can be designed to partner with organizations (such as senior centers or residences) that serve older adults. In order to find a suitable partner, set up an informational interview with the programs and activities coordinator or site director. The partner site’s requirements will vary but may include a background check or an on-site training session. Alternately, opera companies may wish to offer their own independent programs. For strategies on recruiting older adults to an independent program, visit Marketing and Recruitment
. Once the location of the creative aging program has been determined, gaining a thorough understanding of its community and how your organization’s goals can serve this population is essential.
OPERA America recommends speaking directly with potential participants to gauge their skill levels and interest in opera. By asking participants what they hope to gain from participation and tailoring the program to meet these goals, the participants’ dedication will increase.
Working with Older Adults
OPERA America staff, teaching artist Mary Feinsinger and Stories and Song participants at the spring 2013 concert.
Photo Credit: Audrey Saccone
While gathering information about the population, bear in mind the special needs of older adults. Challenges for creative aging projects are especially prevalent in the following areas:
- Health/physical well-being: Disabilities may range from memory loss and dementia to physical limitations, including trouble with movement and loss of vision or hearing.
- Participation: Barriers to attending creative aging programs include time of day, transportation and cost. During program sessions, participant interruptions in the classroom and irregular attendance may occur.
- Learning opera-based content: Some older adults may have negative impressions of opera or a resistance to learning operatic repertoire in a foreign language.
In anticipation of these challenges, OPERA America recommends program organizers:
- Plan activities directly before or after lunchtime. Generally, events on weekends and evenings are not as well attended because transportation and safety are concerns.
- Opera companies may wish to provide transportation for participants depending on their needs and accessibility of transportation. If transportation is not provided for participants, eliminate confusion by providing clear directions to the program site and helping secure travel arrangements (calling a taxi, walking with an older adult to the subway, etc.).
- Note the proximity of program activities to participants’ homes to allow for appropriate travel time.
- Offer free or low-cost programs and events.
- Instill the attitude that opera can be fun and accessible by accommodating the special needs of older adult populations and creating a strong sense of community.
During program sessions, flexibility is essential to accommodate the special needs of older adults. OPERA America recommends the following practices for effective session management:
- Speak slowly, loudly and clearly.
- Be prepared to repeat exercises or offer extra assistance as needed.
- Adjust to physical limitations by using large print scores and offering alternatives to physical exercises to accommodate mobility limitations.
- Review the material regularly in the event members are absent or forgetful.
- Keep rehearsals open to anyone who wishes to observe or listen. Individuals will often join a program after watching for a few sessions. Be sure to gauge the participant to teacher ratio and adjust appropriately according to the specific needs of your program’s population.
For special events (both on and off-site concerts, performances, lectures, etc.), creative aging professionals in opera may wish to:
- Provide handouts listing the time and date of the event to help prevent confusion.
- Call participants to remind them a few days prior to and the day before an event.
- Ensure that the volume is loud enough to project throughout the space if the event uses multimedia equipment.
- Utilize supertitles for translations of foreign-language material and to assist the hearing impaired.
- Provide a short summary or introduction to enhance participants’ comprehension of the activity.
Regardless of programmatic emphasis, experience-based learning resonates with older adults as it taps into a key reason that they join creative aging programs: to have a new life experience
. Creative aging programs in opera usually focus on creating and performing opera, learning about opera or engaging with the opera industry. Examples of experience-based learning activities one may wish to include:
- Involving older adults in an opera performance
- Composing an opera with older adults
- Inviting guests from different facets of the opera industry
- Participating in a pre-performance or community lecture about opera
- Taking a backstage tour at an opera company
- Attending an HD broadcast, dress rehearsal or live performance of an opera
- Offering a list of activities outside of program hours for participants to learn more about opera on their own time
If you are designing a vocal program, you may wish to increase the understanding and accessibility of the operatic repertoire by:
- Utilizing crossover repertoire, works written in the participants’ native language or translated text. Note: OPERA America found that participants were eager to perform the selections in the original languages and that foreign language repertoire should not be considered a barrier.
- Writing the pronunciations phonetically on lyric sheets for foreign language repertoire
- Selecting abridged or arranged operatic repertoire
When selecting repertoire for an opera-based learning program, you may wish to consider arrangements of the following as they are familiar and widely available for use:
- Habañera or Toréador Song (Carmen)
- Humming Chorus (Madama Butterfly)
- Libiamo ne' lieti calici (La traviata)
- Una furtiva lagrima (L'elisir d'amore)
- Va, pensiero (Nabucco)
If a program involves the study of operatic repertoire, pay particular attention to copyright law. It is imperative to understand copyright when photocopying music. Bear in mind that new arrangements and contemporary works usually do not fall under public domain. See copyright.gov
for more information.
OPERA America has engaged consultants Michael Bronson and Joseph Kluger to assist its Professional Company Members (PCMs) on rights issues and electronic media. Their services are available at no charge to PCMs and they may be reached at ElectronicMedia@operaamerica.org
Staffing Creative Aging Programs
In planning program activities, opera companies should also consider the following:
- Programming may take substantial work off-site or outside of traditional work hours
- Staff at the partner site may work at multiple sites or on a non-standard schedule (weekend, evenings, etc.) so plan to be flexible and realistic about the staffing needs for adequate implementation of a creative aging program
- Volunteers may be helpful in offering additional programming and support
Teaching artists are an excellent resource because they typically come from a diverse arts background and may have special skills that can be highlighted to match the program’s focus. Depending on the type of program, key qualities of a successful teaching artist in creative aging include:
- Previous experience or strong desire to work with older adults
- Attention to special needs and ability to improvise to best match those needs
- Knowledge of and experience with opera repertoire and the opera industry
- Strong listening skills
- Patience, humor and flexibility
- Energy to engage participants
- Familiarity with the aging voice
- Performance experience: singing, acting, accompanying, conducting
For a sample job description and contract OPERA America used in its teaching artist search, see Program and Documentation Tools
Marketing and Recruitment
When marketing the program to potential participants, it is essential to emphasize the benefits
of participation in these programs and bear in mind how older adults receive information. Additionally, an effective marketing and recruitment effort should address the concerns of older adults regarding potential challenges, limitations or special needs.
Recommended recruitment and marketing activities include:
Documentation and Learning Strategy
- Visiting the program site or locations potential participants may frequent prior to the program’s start to generate ideas and recruit participants (visit during lunch hour or another communal gathering)
- Hosting a separate introductory session allowing participants to share the topics and repertoire that they are most interested in exploring
- Calling potential participants to personally invite them (based on a list from the partner site or community organizations that work with older adult populations)
- Publicizing all sessions and events with posters and in your partner site’s calendar (if applicable)
- Creating a calendar for the creative aging program
- E-mailing participants with updates and reminders
- Posting on social media platforms that have event calendars specifically targeted to older adults
- Placing posters at other community locations frequented by older adults
It is important to design a documentation strategy in order to learn about the ongoing development and progress of the program. Documentation addresses key questions your organization and funders may have regarding the extent of participant learning and whether or not program and organizational goals were met through a creative aging project Through this process, you can adjust program activities to better match the needs of the group and gain greater insight into the group’s learning. Additionally, documentation benefits participants by serving as a self-assessment of skill level and progress, as well as a reinforcement and review of topics studied. See OPERA America’s examples of Documentation Tools
Your documentation and learning strategy may include:
- Audio recording, videotaping and photographing program sessions
- Tracking attendance
- Gathering teachers' reflections (oral or written)
- Collecting and archiving all written classroom activities
- Interviewing partner site staff members, participants and teaching artists
- Vocal or other related form of participant evaluation at the beginning, middle and end of the program
- Surveying participants about opera learning and community building
OPERA America offers the following guidelines in developing a successful documentation and learning strategy:
Partnerships and Community Building
- Develop program goals and indicators of success before the beginning of a program
- Be prepared to assess participants to accommodate different learning styles and possible barriers
- Incorporate both self and external assessments
- Explain the purpose and usage to participants when gathering data or recordings
- Obtain consent forms from all participants via a signed media release for full access to use the videos, pictures and recordings
In order to greatly enhance the scope, visibility and impact of your program, partnerships and community building are vital in serving older adults. By involving participants that are already invested in another activity (ex. poetry class, sing-a-long) at a partner organization, one can build upon their loyalty to participate in future opera programming.
Typically, a partner site that serves older adults will offer other community programs (poetry, visual art, gardening, theater, etc.) that are potential partners for collaboration. In pursuing partnerships:
- Review programming at the partner site and identify potential collaborators
- Ask staff at the partner site for recommendations on who might be interested in collaborating
- Use clear and reciprocal terms as you define the parameters of a partnership
- Remember that it is best to get commitments to fund portions of a project and more substantial agreements in writing (contracts for space, financial agreements, etc.).
Drawings by Hamilton Senior Center’s Life Maps program, a partner of OPERA America’s Stories and Song, displayed at the spring 2013 concert.
Photo Credit: Audrey Saccone
Building authentic relationships with the community is essential as it will increase the level of investment of older adults, funders and staff at the partner site have in a creative aging and opera program. In order to create a positive learning environment for participants:
- Emphasize the importance of experience over perfection
- Instill a sense of ownership and membership by providing participants with a choice in programming
- Remind participants of their personal goals for the program
- Minimize deadlines and requirements
- Learn the names of participants as soon as possible
- Take personal interest in conversations and events at the partner site (if applicable) outside of the opera-learning program
Additionally, opera company staff should consider how they will continue a relationship with participants and the partner organization after the program has concluded.
Continuing the Relationship
Whether or not the program is ongoing, older adults will have an increased interest in your organization upon program completion. OPERA America recommends the following practices in continuing a relationship with creative aging program participants:
- Gather participant contact information and survey how participants might wish to be involved with your organization in the future.
- Invite participants to engage with your organization at upcoming performances or events.
For further information, please contact Leah Wilson, director of learning and engagement, at LWilson@operaamerica.org