Videoconferencing at its Best: Nashville Opera Brings "How to Write an Opera" to USN Students

This a true tale of just one instance where videoconferencing allowed distance learning to work its magic.

On December 17, 2003, Amy Tate Williams, Chorus Master and Accompanist for the Nashville Opera Association, presented a fascinating dialogue with eleven students from Robbie McKay’s Literature and Music classes. This interaction was one of many facilitated through a wide-ranging network in the state of Tennessee dubbed Project DIANE (see links at the end of this article). University School of Nashville and the Nashville Opera have met before, but this was the first high school level program. Ms. Williams engaged the students in a way not always seen in videoconferencing interactions: This program was an in-depth conversation in the best sense of the word.

Mr. McKay teaches two sections of a senior level course devoted to learning about the symbiosis between literature and music through history. It is a class whose focus ranges from the technical to the anecdotal, and his students had recently completed a brief study of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Ms. Williams was present, courtesy of the Opera Association, to talk about “How to Write an Opera.†The students gathered in a multi-purpose room which was set up for USN’s annual Lower School Holiday Songfests, so festive holiday decorations set an unusual stage for the videoconference.

The seasoned musician and composer began by asking the students for their definition of opera. One student in the first class answered, simply, “Telling a story with music.â€

Ms. Williams agreed, and then she wondered aloud about the kinds of stories that could be fair game for opera composers: “If you walk into a Blockbuster, you see all kinds of movies. What are some of those?†The responses included drama, horror, comedy, family, suspense… She went on to say that the movie Dead Man Walking, a very strong book derived from a true story dealing with capital punishment, has been put to opera. “It ends when the music fades off and the only sound is the machine applying the lethal injection.â€

After a brief interchange about the four main arts human beings share (music, dance, drama, and visual), the presenter summarized and queried, “We are the sum of our four fine arts. We can use any of these to tell a story. Why might using music be more effective than many other ways to present a story? One student responded, "It touches more of your senses..."

The composer observed, “Sometimes it’s many things, like forgiveness, falling in love for the first time, or being in nature. Sometimes listening to music without words your heart can go on a journey.†She illustrated this with recorded audio excerpts from two different operas, “The Magic Flute†and “The Flying Dutchman.â€

Next, Ms. Williams changed the topic by saying, “Let’s talk about the decisions that need to be made even as you write. Is this going to be on stage? What technical issues are there? My husband is a stage technician who helped me while I wrote my opera, Rumpelstilskin, by working out how to turn straw into gold.â€

How long is an opera? “The general standard answer is 3 hours, but they can be any length. My own opera was designed for performances in schools: It is 42 minutes long in order to fit it within a class period. I’ve accompanied operas that were 5 hours, and that doesn’t include the intermission. I also know operas that are as short as 5 minutes!â€

“As a writer you may find yourself developing characters much more than they were developed in your original story. If your story is already a play it can be easier, but that can also limit your options. You have to understand the story deeply so that you can choose your theme. In Rumplestilskin, my theme is transforming love in the face of greed.

Ms. Williams went on to wonder why Mozart composed so that the opera’s evil woman has the highest voice in the opera. She described the different classifications of singers and the reasons why composers cast different kinds of voices in different roles. “If you’re a lady, and you have a low voice, you almost never get to play a romantic lead; it’s kind of a raw deal.â€

“Why is monologue important in a play?†“It tells us what is going on inside a character.†Aria, or solo pieces, can be like monologue or soliloquy in drama, they can tell us things we can’t really see from watching the characters interact on stage.

She asked the students to come up with a story that could be put to music, and then went on to cast the characters for Little Red Riding Hood. Red would be the soprano, of course, the grandmother would be the mezzo-soprano or alto, and the chorus would come in and serve to narrate and move the story along. The woodcutter would be the bass or baritone.

At every step of the way, while talking about The Magic Flute and her own opera, Rumpelstilskin, Ms. Williams showed an interest in and a respect for the knowledge the students might have, and she solicited information from them to guide the direction of her discussion.

She moved on to the accompaniment. “We do some pieces with full orchestra. We’re doing a piece soon with only 13 players, and it includes some unusual instruments, like a banjo and an out of tune piano…Mozart included a unique instrument called a glockenspiel in The Magic Flute. The two operas I’ve written were accompanied only by piano, since they were written for touring the state and had a very small cast.â€

She talked about 12-tone music, serial music, and other technical variations in the ways that an opera’s music can be written. She discussed the overture, which one student described as “all the themes tied together in one piece.†She described its purpose as “kind of getting you ready for all you’re about to see.†Sometimes the overture is a completely separate composition, which is how The Magic Flute is composed — Mozart always wrote his overtures in that way. Finally, operas come in all manner of different languages. My other piece is called The Looking Glass, is about a Mexican family, but I wrote it in English. I think it’s important that you write in the language you principally speak.â€

Each videoconference lasted only 45 minutes with a brief 10-minute class-change between the two. We will be having more interactions with the Nashville Opera in the future, and if they do anything nearly as well as this one did we will be bringing the best of what the distance learning world has to offer to our students. Thank you Ms. Williams, thank you Nashville Opera Association, and thank you Project DIANE. Perhaps most importantly thank you, Mr. McKay, for taking advantage of one of the growing number of distance-delivered real-world opportunities available to our learners of all kinds.

Relevant Links:
University School of Nashville
The Nashville Opera Association
Project DIANE

Email: Scott Merrick