According to Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, “God made Man because He loves stories.” Indeed, humans have been telling stories since the beginning of recorded history. Smithsonian Magazine points out that certain Indonesian cave paintings date back more than 35,000 years! Apparently, even then, there was nothing like a good story.
Back in those Paleolithic days, the only apparent options for a storytelling medium were either the spoken word or, if you wanted to memorialize your tale, a good cave wall. Today, we are afforded a much wider, almost dizzying array of storytelling platforms from which to choose.
Today, the emphasis on a good narrative is as timely as ever, and it’s certainly true in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. SCM students are receiving an education in storytelling – whether it’s through the study of theoretical approaches to content and context, or in various applied opportunities, such as class partnerships, external projects, or internships.
One truly unique storytelling opportunity for the SCM millennial student comes from the school’s ongoing relationship with the Metropolitan Opera and its educational arm, the Metropolitan Opera Guild, which is tasked with developing an appreciation of opera to public schools throughout the New York area. The challenge to the SCM students – how can you get young public school-aged students to learn to enjoy opera? Historically, public school teachers have been armed with video recordings and librettos of the operas they were teaching to their students. The results have been at best, mixed. Surely, more can be done to give educators the tools with which to foster a love of opera.
Enter SCM. Using the knowledge and experience learned in and outside the university classroom, plus their ease with using social media, the school’s students from across the curriculum areas have developed a better way to teach opera, one that’s certainly more modern, more interesting, and more participatory. Using the original libretto as the foundation, the students have used such platforms as Goanimate (animation platform), Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, websites, even comic books, to help develop the opera’s characters, plot, and the historical period in which the opera is based. The goal is to get young school children excited about the story and how it’s told.
Over the years, SCM students have created modern storytelling projects for “The Magic Flute,” “Die Fledermaus,” “Cyrano,” “The Abduction From the Seraglio,” and “La Traviata.” All of the projects are about operas being performed at the world renowned Metropolitan Opera that season. The narratives created by SCM are included in the educational material the Met provides its participating schools. The payoff is that the children get to visit the Metropolitan opera to see a performance of the opera they had been studying, and they have gained a better appreciation of that opera.
As the SCM students create new 21st century storytelling approaches to the teaching of opera, something interesting occurs; they, too, acquire an appreciation of it. According to Gianna Mazzarella, a senior Television and Digital Media major, “I’ve never watched opera or been interested in it, but when it comes to looking at it though a different lens and platform such as social media, it grabs my attention more and makes me more interested in opera.”
Alyson Cohen, a senior Public Relations major, worked on the Met project last semester. “'Cyrano' was one of the most unique educational experiences. I got to work with a team of students on something none of us really knew anything about.”
Trinity O’Connor, a senior, Television and Digital Media major, looks forward to marrying modern storytelling with the old. “If I were to teach young children about a specific opera, I think a comic book style would be the best way to portray the story with less confusion, and they would find it enjoyable.”
Television and Digital Media major, Michael Stringhan states, “It would have to be made fairly interesting/colorful for millennials to pay attention to it since it isn't a movie or a pop artist.”
Finally, Christian Singh, a senior Public Relations major, finds the idea of using his social media skills and modern storytelling concepts to teach opera exciting. “I like this idea and I think it could be fun to write about opera in a more modern way. It will definitely give readers more of an incentive to learn about it if it's talked about through social media.”
The first opera ever written was performed in 1597 in Florence, Italy. It was called “Dafne,” and the composer was Jacopo Peri, and one of the most recent was John Adam’s “Doctor Atomic,” produced in 2005. It is generally conceded, however, that opera’s golden era was the mid to late 19th century, when such giants as Richard Wagner, Guiseppi Verdi and, somewhat later, Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss ruled the operatic world.
Perhaps, with students in the School of Communication and Media developing new and unique ways to make learning about opera more interesting, a new golden age of opera may arrive.