• “He Sure Doesn’t Sound Like Justin Timberlake!” – Turandot in the Classroom

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    “Why did Liu kill herself?” “Why is the crowd happy that Calaf gets to marry Turandot in the end? – He was ready to let them be killed!” “All those men who fell in love with Turandot needed to learn more about ladies – looks aren’t everything!”


    These questions and comments were music to my ears this afternoon, coming as they did from the mouths of fifth graders at Fairburn Ave. Elementary School. In addition to being adorable, and often surprisingly insightful, they proved that my presentation based on Puccini’s Turandot had achieved its goal. It had made an opera compelling to children.


    For eight years, I’ve regularly visited Fairburn (and a few other schools) as a volunteer, offering a series of presentations to introduce the world of opera to fifth-graders. Each presentation is simple. I read the story of the opera, in a child-friendly retelling that I’ve written. At various points I stop reading and play musical highlights from the opera, via a classic recording. I also show the class a PowerPoint slideshow with pictures of the opera’s characters, to help them imagine the story as they hear it. I finish each presentation by handing out two information sheets: one of important terms to know (e.g. “libretto,” “composer,” the various voice types), and one about the specific opera of the day, its composer and its history. So far, my repertoire consists of Hänsel und Gretel, Orfeo ed Euridice, Turandot, Roméo et Juliette, L’Enfant et les Sortileges, La Bohéme, Die Zauberflöte and La Cenerentola. My Turandot presentation, using the 1966 Molinari-Pradelli recording with Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli and Renata Scotto, is always received with enthusiasm and today was no exception.


    What a thrill it gave me today, what a thrill it always gives me, to see and hear the emotional responses of the class to the opera! At first glance, you might not have thought they were listening: like typical kids, they chattered, played with things on their desks, etc. But at key moments it became clear that they were following both the story and the music, and that they were interested. Today’s presentation gave me these various gems: a mischievous boy and girl lip-syncing to Calaf and Turandot’s most sumptuous music, a slouching boy sitting bolt upright at the sound of Corelli’s gripping high C, a girl’s audible murmur of “Poor Liú…” in response to Signore, ascolta, and a boy loudly exclaiming “What?! That’s not fair!!” when Turandot decreed that everyone would die if the Unknown Prince’s name went undiscovered.


    True, the emotional responses weren’t, and never are, the same as those of adults. At both today’s Turandot performance and at others, I’ve heard giggling at serious moments: at all the mentions of beheading (why did they find that funny?), at the great hulking sobs of Corelli’s Calaf over Liú’s death, and when Turandot confessed that she feared, hated and loved Calaf all at once (such complicated emotions are probably a bit beyond fifth-grade understanding). But at least they were enjoying themselves… better giggles than yawns or grumbling, I say! And true, sometimes they’ve been “weirded out” by the strange, incomparable art form that is opera (“How weird…” was one girl’s response to Corelli’s volcanic voice, “He sure doesn’t sound like Justin Timberlake!”). But “weirded out” or not, they’ve gotten a taste of opera that engaged them, and (whether it happens right away or over time) they just might learn to love it as a result.


    I was the exact same age as these fifth-graders when I saw my first opera, and if I could learn to love it at that age, so can they. That’s why I share my passion with them. Today’s presentation was a wonderful experience, as my presentations always have been, and I can’t wait to go back to the school and do it again.

    • This is a wonderful description of your classroom experience. I can just see their faces and hear their comments. how do you keep from giggling yourself? How fun that you have found a passion that your generous spirit wants to share. Brava my dearest girl.

    • Jordan–what a fantastic time you must have had sharing your passion, knowledge and love of opera with these kids. I am so proud of you! GOOD JOB!

    • I have witnessed this first hand when I was lucky enough to have you in my classroom. I refer to you and your presentations throughout the year. You and your opera presentation are such gifts:).

    • I have even witnessed rowdy and hormonal middle schoolers listen quietly to the beginning of your stories and and then become animated, unreserved questioners as the tales unfold. How lucky the Fairburn fifth graders are to have this wonderful introduction to the world of opera!

    • What a great piece, Jordan. Reading your description was like being in the classroom with you. Attention teachers everywhere, invite Jordan
      to bring opera into the life of your classroom and the lives of your students. It’s something both you and your students will treasure.

    • Fantastic to get kids involved like this! I salute you!

      I think the kids pretty much have the measure of the opera and were asking the right questions. What troubles me is that adults take it seriously, when it’s racist, nonsensical, and poorly made. It’s an absolute shocker, and aside from the 4 excellent arias in it, is probably Puccini’s worst opera. And that’s saying something.

    • Jordan,

      How lucky those 5th graders are to have you introduce them to opera. this is an engaging description. I love to hear stories, and want to be one of those lucky kids.

      I am glad to be introduced to your blog.

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