Learning About Opera Proves a High Note for School Children

Opera is not at all like I expected--I thought it was people standing on stage with Viking hats singing high notes. -- Scott Thiele, student at Crown Elementary School, Coronado

Surrounded by 50 third- and fourth-graders squirming on the floor of La Jolla’s Bird Rock Elementary School, opera docent Estelle Wagner was working her way down her opera vocabulary list.

“And what is a tenor?” she asked.

“It’s a type of saxophone,” one of her charges piped up without a moment’s hesitation.


Unexpected responses and student impatience are nothing out of the ordinary to Wagner, one of San Diego Opera Center’s most seasoned classroom docents. Wagner and the other 20 members of this volunteer brigade have made 151 presentations to students in county and city schools during the current academic year. According to Susan Jay, volunteer director of the docent program, the docents are busiest before San Diego Opera performances, preparing classes of youngsters who will attend a dress rehearsal of one of the company’s major international series productions in the Civic Theatre.

This particular afternoon, however, Wagner and her two assistants were giving a more generic program called “The ABCs of Opera,” an introduction to an art form that a surprising number of the Bird Rock students said they had attended. Before embarking on a backstage tour of an opera production via slide show narration, Wagner pulled out a pair of her sure-fire tricks.

As the trumpet call to the “Lone Ranger” theme boomed from the portable tape recorder, Wagner told her audience that the music they associated with a television Western is really an overture to Rossini’s opera “William Tell.” While the students were less than credulous, she had their full attention again.

When the slide projector flashed a brilliantly garbed chorus on the screen, Wagner’s assistant cued the “Bridal Chorus” from Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin.” This prompted one of the students to stand up and sing her rendition of a schoolyard parody of “Here Comes the Bride.”


Because the Bird Rock students were in an accelerated program, Wagner’s presentation ended with the students improvising a five-minute opera of their own based on a single-page libretto Wagner handed out as she and classroom teacher Mary Jo Brown cast the major roles.

An assistant placed gold-foil crowns on the heads of the opera’s emperor and empress, and dressed the prisoners in tunics made from brown grocery bags. The remainder of the class functioned as the chorus, coached by Wagner as she led them through a singsong reading of the script.

“Each docent writes his own script for the improvised opera,” explained Jay, “and each docent has his own approach and format for the class presentation. Before we go into the schools to prepare the students who will be attending an opera dress rehearsal, we bring in some musical or drama expert to coach the docents about that opera.”

“The docent program is only one of three programs that San Diego Opera Center, the educational arm of San Diego Opera, sends into the schools,” said Pat DeMarce, chairman of the Opera Center. A second program, called the “Hansel and Gretel” program, is a five-week residency that uses the host school’s resources--from singers to scenery builders--to present a full performance of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera “Hansel and Gretel.” Each year four schools are chosen for this program, two in the City of San Diego and two in the rest of the county. The program is staffed by music professionals from San Diego Opera.


For the secondary schools, the Opera Center has a program called “Shakespeare Goes to the Opera.” Four professionals--a narrator, a soprano, a baritone and an accompanist--present a concert of excerpts from operas based on the Bard’s works. DeMarce said those range from Verdi’s “Otello” to Bernstein’s “West Side Story.”

Like most of the people who make the Opera Center work, DeMarce is a volunteer, a member of the San Diego Opera board responsible for the company’s educational programs.

“We hold two major fund-raisers a year, so that the majority of our programs can be presented free to the schools,” DeMarce said. “Next year we will have a new program, an eight-week residency of young singers auditioned from around the country who will take Donizetti’s opera buffa ‘Don Pasquale’ out to the schools.”

According to Kay Wagner (no relation to Estelle Wagner), fine arts program manager for the San Diego Unified School District, the Opera Center’s classroom programs are a real boon.


“Since we have had such limited funds for music and all of the arts in recent times--largely because of this focus on ‘back to the basics'--the opera’s programs have brought a real spark of life into the schools,” she said. She noted, however, that it is a mutually beneficial program, especially in terms of building an audience for the opera.

“From my vantage point, I am seeing a revival of interest in art and music by classroom teachers,” Kay Wagner said. “They requested more on-site music specialists in their last contract negotiations with the district, although they were not successful in getting what they wanted.

“I understand that, in many schools, teachers are requesting that a portion of the state lottery money allocated to their schools will be used to bring more art and music to the campus. Of course, I know that some of the money will go for computers and math programs, but I’m optimistic that music will benefit from these additional funds.”