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Opinion

The Whiteboard Jungle: Students learn valuable lessons about opera through one of the art form’s supporters

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A scene from the L.A. Opera’s production of ‘La Boheme.’
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Before this school year began, I planned experiences for my students outside the classroom walls that would expand their knowledge of literature, history and the arts.

First on that list was to see a production of Puccini’s “La Boheme” by the Los Angeles Opera company at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles.

For years, the education arm of L.A. Opera has funded programs for students to be introduced to the splendor of a live opera performance for free, quite a gift considering the best seats in the house go for over $300 a piece.

Back in the late 1990s when I discovered this program, I would apply to it each year by submitting lesson plans and attending Saturday workshops in order to bring dozens of students to see a matinee performance.

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Year after year, students and parents told me how much they enjoyed the experience, but, year after year, I became increasingly exhausted.

Without clerical support, I had to call the bus company myself to make all of the arrangements, collect enough money from students to pay not only for their transportation but to cover the cost of those who could not afford to pay, solicit parents to serve as chaperons and fill out several school and district forms.

It also didn’t help that some teachers did not approve of students going on the field trip. One actually called me to ask if my students could miss my class the following day in order to make up for the lost hour due to the opera.

By the end of this century’s first decade, I decided I was done.

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Until this year, when I resurrected this event for my 10th-graders. After all, L.A. Opera was producing my favorite, “La Boheme.”

When I first taught opera, the L.A. Opera League would schedule guest speakers to visit each school participating in the program.

One of those speakers was Leslie Einstein, who came armed with full-size posters of not just the opera but of history and literature. She wanted the students to be immersed in the time period, turning the classroom into a French café by passing out cups of apple juice and plates of home-baked madeleines.

She enjoyed interacting with my students so much that she proposed starting an after-school opera club.

Think about this. A woman living in Pacific Palisades driving to a school in Glendale to fund a club where students learn about opera, then go see the actual performances. In addition to the donated tickets, she treated the students to a formal dinner beforehand.

So before I began my opera unit on “La Boheme” last month, as a shot in the dark, I contacted Einstein after 18 years. Luckily, I found her phone number on a fax cover sheet dated from 2001 in a folder in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet.

I didn’t know what to expect when I called, but after hearing her voicemail greeting, I knew she was doing well.

When we finally spoke over the phone a couple of days later, it was as if we had just recently talked to one another. Amazing to think that the last time we spoke was before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. How much in the world had changed since then, but not her enthusiasm.

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Not only did she agree to drive out to Hoover to be a guest speaker for my students, she was going to do two presentations as well as bring the apple juice and madeleines.

It was nice that so many of my students enjoyed studying opera and seeing “La Boheme,” and even more special that they had an opportunity to know such a spirited opera supporter.

Today’s world could use a few more kind souls like her whose charity brighten and enrich young people’s lives.


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