Creating Opera

Grade Levels: 6 - 12

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 the process 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 focus their energy toward creative small-group projects by telling them that their task is to create a drama with music – that is, an opera. Draw attention to the available instruments and prop and costume materials. Suggest some possible uses and encourage students to imagine other uses. Of course, suggest that they can use elements they have developed in previous lessons – such as movement, improvisations, motives, and vocal techniques.
  2. Challenge the students to think of a short, action-filled plot in which music can enhance and heighten the emotional impact of the drama. Suggest that they use a scene from an opera that they have already encountered, 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 speaking or singing, develop and notate leitmotifs, compose or improvise background music, and select roles including:
      • Actors (speaking or singing roles)
      • Accompanists (to play available instruments)
      • Director
    • Create scenery and costumes. If possible, work with the visual art teacher (or in a subsequent class) to create 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 more than five minute) plot with dialogue, selection of appropriate instruments, and development of leitmotifs.
    • Use the remaining time to develop and rehearse the accompaniment, action, dialogue, and singing. Encourage the students to draw on materials that they have produced for previous lessons. During this time, move about the student groups encouraging, evaluating the work-in-progress, and ensuring the cooperation and responsible behavior of each student. Make certain that the students keep a notated record of 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 on students' homework research into appropriate period costuming (especially if this can be done in cooperation with the social studies teacher). Allow no more than 30-45 minutes from start to cleanup.
    • In a final class or in an "informance" for parents (and, of course, your colleagues in other disciplines), pull it all together with:
      • A quick review of performance requirements. Let the students know that the group's evaluation will be based on these requirements.
      • A short (five-minute) rehearsal period in which vocal and instrumental performers work separately.
      • A twelve-minute final rehearsal for each small group
      • A performance by each group – if possible, videotaped
      • In the "intermission" between each group's presentation, an "Opera Quiz" with three to five questions asked of the audience (as time allows). The students will love putting their parents on the spot with questions about a subject they've studied.
    • In the same class or later, lead the students in evaluating the taped performances. They may use all of the criteria developed in previous lessons plus:
      • Were leitmotifs included as required? How did each motif portray the subject, item, or character?
      • Did the instrumental accompaniment add to the emotional impact of the characters and story? How?
      • Was the selection of instruments appropriate to the 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 the performance? Was it expressive of the mood of the character and delivered with good intonation and breath control?
      • Did the actors present believable characters? Give examples.
      • Did the scenery, props, and costumes serve to enhance the mood and action? Were any particular items 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, or prelude and ending to be included in their performance.
  • Extend your "informance" to performances at visitation days, PTO/PTA meetings, grade assemblies, and other events. Introduce the opera project (and your colleagues in other subjects) at this time and invite parents to accompany students on trips to opera productions and to tune in to the regular broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera productions.
  • Challenge vocal students to prepare and perform a vocal 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.

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