Opera goes to schools in Gwinnett

Teachers are always on the lookout for ways to make lessons come alive. For foreign language instructors in several Gwinnett schools, that’s been made easier with a little help from a few opera singers.

Turns out the musical art form, usually staged with subtitles so audiences can follow along, provides an excellent exercise in multi-language skills. For students in the district’s dual-immersion language classes, it introduced an soundtrack to studies that many young listeners may never have encountered.

Throughout the month of January, the meeting of music and curriculum took place at various schools that hosted a scaled-down version of “The Barber of Seville,” staged by members of the Atlanta Opera. The 45-minute shows marked the first time the schools had hosted the opera’s performers.

“We were actually contacted by the opera because they’d heard about our dual language immersion program,” said Jon Valentine, the district’s director of foreign languages. “This version of ‘The Barber of Seville’ is something they’d been working on with a main character who plays a go-between with someone who only speaks English and someone who only speaks Spanish.”

To prepare students for the performance, the opera provided a curriculum guide that fit with state standards for learning in areas such as history, language and, in some cases, math. It also addressed frequently asked questions and dispelled myths about opera.

“With every opera we create, we include general information about the history of opera in Atlanta as well as some of the basics, like what is an aria and is it OK to clap,” said Jessica Kiger, the opera’s audience development and education manager. “But the top question is always, ‘How do you sing without microphones?’”

At no expense to the schools, the opera hauled colorful costumes, a few set pieces, four performers, a pianist and a tour manager to Baldwin, Annistown, Bethesda and Camp Creek elementaries. They were just four of the schools across the metro area where the opera stages 60 performances over 10 weeks for about 14,000 students. One of the singers who acted in Gwinnett is himself a multi-lingual learner.

“It has been challenging for me because ‘The Barber of Seville’ was originally written to be sung in Italian, while our version is translated into English and Spanish, and my first language is Portuguese,” said baritone Samuel Ferreira. “While I was learning it, I was dealing with four languages in my head. It’s also a special occasion when kids can experience opera for the first time and practice their second language.”

Introducing a new generation to opera was just one accomplishment of the program, said Valentine.

“It was great that our students could use their bilingualism to make connections to the characters,” he said. “It fit our wheelhouse very well. My dream is that maybe there was some second-grade kid sitting in the front row and thinking about how they can use language to go forward into a career.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.