Creating Opera

Work with students to improvise dialogue (speaking and singing), music, and scenery to turn a story into an emotional performance.


  • Students will have an opportunity for active involvement in theprocess of creating and combining music, drama, costumes, and scenery into a single work.
  • Students will come to a better understanding of the visual and aural power and beauty of opera.


  • Classroom and orchestral instruments, other sound sources as available
  • Staff paper (for notating), drawing paper, colored pencils, chalk, water colors, brushes, erasers (for scenery, props)
  • Video and cassette equipment
  • One or two instrumental risers for staging (if needed)
  • Available materials such as large pieces of cardboard, boxes, sheets, scissors, tape, glue, for props and costuming


  1. Create interest, stir students' imaginations, and focustheir energy toward creative small-group projects bytelling them that their task is to create a drama withmusic – that is, an opera. Draw attention to theavailable instruments and prop and costume materials.Suggest some possible uses and encourage students toimagine other uses. Of course, suggest that they can useelements they have developed in previous lessons – such as movement, improvisations, motives, and vocal techniques.
  2. Challenge the students to think of a short, action-filledplot in which music can enhance and heighten theemotional impact of the drama. Suggest that theyuse a scene from an opera that they have alreadyencountered, a subject from literature or mythology,common folk tales (with characters added or deleted).
  3. Divide the class into two or three parts. Each group will:
    • Select a story, write or improvise dialogue for speakingor singing, develop and notate leitmotifs, composeor improvise background music, and select rolesincluding:
      • Actors (speaking or singing roles)
      • Accompanists (to play available instruments)
      • Director
    • Create scenery and costumes. If possible, work withthe visual art teacher (or in a subsequent class) tocreate designs to:
      • Match the mood and action of the story
      • Facilitate the production of the opera (all props must be moved and placed by performers)
    • Rehearse and perform.
    • Select questions from their journals for a final "Opera Quiz."
  4. As the students begin their projects, discuss rules for their work. Then, run the production on a tight schedule:
    • Allow 8-10 minutes for selection of story and items,characters, or ideas for leitmotifs.
    • Allow 10-12 minutes to develop short (no morethan five minute) plot with dialogue, selection ofappropriate instruments, and development of leitmotifs.
    • Use the remaining time to develop and rehearse theaccompaniment, action, dialogue, and singing.Encourage the students to draw on materials thatthey have produced for previous lessons. During thistime, move about the student groups encouraging,evaluating the work-in-progress, and ensuring thecooperation and responsible behavior of each student.Make certain that the students keep a notated recordof their work, using any means that they will recall or understand.
    • In a visual art class or a subsequent music class,develop the costumes and props. This may be based onstudents' homework research into appropriate periodcostuming (especially if this can be done in cooperationwith the social studies teacher). Allow no more than30-45 minutes from start to cleanup.
    • In a final class or in an "informance" for parents (and,of course, your colleagues in other disciplines), pull itall together with:
      • A quick review of performance requirements. Letthe students know that the group's evaluation willbe based on these requirements.
      • A short (five-minute) rehearsal period inwhich vocal and instrumental performerswork separately.
      • A twelve-minute final rehearsal for eachsmall group
      • A performance by each group – if possible, videotaped
      • In the "intermission" between each group'spresentation, an "Opera Quiz" with three to fivequestions asked of the audience (as time allows).The students will love putting their parentson the spot with questions about a subjectthey've studied.
    • In the same class or later, lead the students inevaluating the taped performances. They may use allof the criteria developed in previous lessons plus:
      • Were leitmotifs included as required? How did eachmotif portray the subject, item, or character?
      • Did the instrumental accompaniment add to theemotional impact of the characters and story? How?
      • Was the selection of instruments appropriate tothe mood and sensitive to the subject? Why, or why not?
      • Was there an appropriate amount of accompaniment or scenery? Explain.
      • When and how was singing included in theperformance? Was it expressive of the mood ofthe character and delivered with good intonationand breath control?
      • Did the actors present believable characters? Give examples.
      • Did the scenery, props, and costumes serve toenhance the mood and action? Were any particularitems especially impressive?
      • Which of the elements of the opera (music, drama,scenery, costumes, props) was the strongest? Why, and what could be improved?

Extension Activities

  • Invite students to prepare an introduction, overture, orprelude and ending to be included in their performance.
  • Extend your "informance" to performances at visitationdays, PTO/PTA meetings, grade assemblies, and otherevents. Introduce the opera project (and your colleagues in other subjects) at this time and invite parentsto accompany students on trips to opera productionsand to tune in to the regular broadcasts of MetropolitanOpera productions.
  • Challenge vocal students to prepare and perform avocal line score for a story or scene.
  • Challenge instrumental students to prepare and perform an accompaniment for the vocal line score.

U.S. Standards Correlations

  • Content Standard #1: Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
  • Content Standard #2: Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
  • Content Standard #3: Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments
  • Content Standard #4: Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines
  • Content Standard #7: Evaluating music and music performances
  • Content Standard #8: Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts
  • Content Standard #9: Understanding music in relation to history and culture

Excerpted from Opera, All of Music and More.

Provided in partnership with NAfME
Work with students to improvise dialogue (speaking and singing), music, and scenery to turn a story into an emotional performance.
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