Opera strikes a chord with students

Stephanie Carlson, director of development and education at Heartland Sings, (center) and vocal artist Jerome Síbulo (left) review an operatic piece with first-graders at Washington Elementary School. BRIDGETT HERNANDEZ

FORT WAYNE — First-graders at Washington Elementary School get a front row seat to an operatic performance twice a week without ever leaving their classrooms.

The arts integration program, presented by Heartland Sings, brings performers into the classroom for interactive lessons that teach students language arts skills through music.

Presented with an operatic piece, often in a foreign language, students learn to identify different parts of a story, including setting, characters and plot. The lessons also encourage students to express themselves through new vocabulary words and to summarize the story using transitional words and phrases.

The program is designed to reinforce what the first-graders are learning in the classroom based on state-mandated curricular standards.

Stephanie Carlson, director of development and education at Heartland Sings, helped to develop and taught a similar program in Tucson, Arizona, schools for 12 years before moving back to Fort Wayne almost three years ago.

Opera is a powerful medium for storytelling, she explained.

“Opera is literature that’s alive. It has aspects of movement, it has aspects of music and it has aspects of theater,” she said.

Watch video of the lesson:

Bringing a lesson to life

During a lesson Jan. 24, students gathered around as Carlson belted out “Das Veilchen,” a German song that tells the story of a violet in a meadow that yearns for the touch of a shepherdess.

As Carlson narrated, the students’ teacher played the part of the shepherdess picking flowers and vocal artist Jerome Síbulo played the part of the violet, donning a purple tutu around his face. Accompanist Andrew Nesler provided the story’s soundtrack on keyboard.

The violet desperately wants to be plucked by the shepherdess, but she instead absentmindedly steps on the small purple flower. However, the violet dies happily because it was crushed beneath the shepherdess’ feet.

“I really need to act it up because the students don’t understand German,” Síbulo said.

Despite the language barrier, the students were able to follow the story and successfully identify the characters’ points of view.

“(Point of view means) everybody can see different stuff because they see different ways,” first-grader Kaysan Ivory said.

First-grade teacher Monica Taylor said the opera program captures her students’ undivided attention.

“The students are in awe,” she said. “It’s not often that students have this opportunity and for the class to be able to see performances from artists that do this professionally. When they’re singing, I’ll turn and look at the class and they don’t blink.”

Supporting a growing program

The goals of Heartland Sings’ Arts Integrated Residences are to increase student achievement; increase student retention and socialization skills; and increase student access to the benefits of and career opportunities in art forms not normally experienced at underserved schools.

The program reaches first-graders in eight classrooms in three schools in Allen County, including Southwick Elementary, Adams Elementary and Washington Elementary.

The program receives support from East Allen County Schools, Fort Wayne Community Schools, and corporate sponsors, including Sweetwater and Parkview Health.

This school year, Washington Elementary was able to bring the program to its classrooms thanks to support from the Rotary Club of Fort Wayne, which donated $7,000 to help fund the program.

Rotary Club of Fort Wayne “adopted” Washington Elementary in 2004. Since then, club members have played an active role in supporting the school’s educators and helping students succeed. Projects have included tutoring, organizing back-to-school picnics, helping with school carnivals and providing financial support to help teachers pay for classroom expenses.

When Heartland Sings approached the club about sponsoring the opera program at the school, members were excited for the opportunity to help enrich students’ experience in the classroom, said member Barb Wachtman.

“It advances education and the arts in very innovative ways, and it helps us advance our goals for this school,” she said.

Wachtman added that the opera program meets two of Rotary’s six areas of focus: education and economic development. An investment in early childhood education is an investment in the future economic health of Fort Wayne, she explained.

“Students who learn well help the city to thrive,” she said.

Acting out

By the end of the residency, students will use these skills to create and perform their own opera.

“They’re applying all of the concepts they’ve learned throughout the year within their own original production,” Carlson said.

Students will come up with a setting and characters. Then they will imagine possible scenarios that could arise. For example, “What are some problems that could happen with an antelope in the middle of the ocean?” Carlson said.

First-grader Callista Washington already has some ideas for the project.

“I can be a doctor,” she said.

The Heartland Sings team will then set the production to music.

Carlson said seeing students grow through the project is the most rewarding part of the program.

“We have students who will be very shy at the beginning of the year but, after memorizing and performing their own opera, by the end of the year they’ve overcome fears, they’ve overcome weaknesses, they’re not afraid to get on stage and perform in front of hundreds of people,” she said.