Academic Exchange Quarterly      Summer 2003  Volume 7, Issue 2



Opera as an Intervention  for Rural Public School Children


Dr. Pearl Yeadon McGinnis, Southwest Missouri State University

As the Director of Opera Workshop, the Collectors Series, and the School Outreach Program, Dr. Yeadon coordinates service-learning opera productions for K-12 audiences within the state of Missouri, and has won four grants for the support of Opera Workshop activities.


Dr. Debra McDowell, Southwest Missouri State University

Dr. McDowell has served as the Director of Citizenship and Service since 1998, has co-chaired the SMSU Public Affairs Advisory Board, helped coordinate funding to non-profit organizations as a result of the United Way giving campaign, and obtained the Templeton Award for outstanding service-learning programming at SMSU. 



In the present climate of reduced budgets for the arts and education, the continuing challenge is to provide increased cultural opportunities for rural public school children.  By enhancing traditional opera performances with experiential learning techniques and emphasizing interdisciplinary study and the Nine National Standards for Arts Education, Southwest Missouri State University’s “Opera Viva” has been able to adapt its performances to meet the specific needs of Missouri rural schools.  Opera as an Intervention for Rural Public School Children is built on one of the basic tenants of the performing arts, its ability to engage the intellect and emotions on a personal as well as social level.  Opera performances on tour in rural schools provide the basis for interactive and interdisciplinary experiences for educators, performers and audience.


Theoretical Concept

As noted by Robert G. Bringle and Julie A Hatcher, (“Making the Case with Quantitative Research,” 2000), research for a project is most beneficial when “… the design is guided by theory … when the data collection is relevant to supporting, developing, refining, and revising a theory.”  The theory, Opera as an Intervention for Rural Public School Children, is based on nine years of Southwest Missouri State University Opera Workshop service-learning performances.


The hypothesis derived from this theory is that a performance of an opera on tour in rural elementary and high schools can significantly alter not only the school-age child’s knowledge and appreciation of music, but could also influence the school age child’s perception of related social, multi-cultural, and interrelationship issues.  A related hypothesis is that the students participating in Opera Workshop as service-learning would benefit from the additional performance venues and receive an enhanced educational experience through experiential learning opportunities as defined by C.R. Rogers and H. J. Freiberg (1994) in Freedom to Learn. According to Rogers and Freiberg learning is facilitated when 1) the student participates completely in the learning process and has control over its nature and direction, 2) it is primarily based upon direct confrontation with practical, social, personal or research problems, and 3) self-evaluation is the principal method of assessing progress or success.  Opera performances are an ideal medium for the integration of these three principles into an arts experience.


Background: The Development of Opera as Service Learning

Nine years of opera performances in Missouri public schools by Southwest Missouri State University’s “Opera Viva,” the touring opera company, raised many interesting questions both about the effectiveness of the performances and the type and amount of learning going on for the student performers as well as the public school audience members.  In order to address the questions, the primary difficulty was to change the opera performances from an event that an audience simply watches, and hopefully enjoys, to an event that would stimulate life-long learning and interest in the arts.  In changing the purpose it was then possible to redefine the product as research.  The research outline becomes  1) to improve the production so it answers specific needs of the audience and involves the audience in some manner, and 2) to integrate elements of experiential learning and interactive learning into the performance for the benefit of the student performers and the public school audience members.


In designing opera workshop performances with Roger’s concepts in mind, experiential and interactive learning were implemented in the following ways. 1) In order to promote a higher level of critical thinking, the project encouraged the contribution of the student directors and performers to all aspects of the new Curriculum Guide, including the production process, suggestions for the lesson plan, art projects, interactive exercises, costumes, make-up, and suggestions for quantitative and qualitative assessment.  The immediate positions of responsibility included a Student Stage Director, Assistant Director, Choreographer, Set Designer, Costume Designer, Lighting Designer, Technical Director, and Stage Manager. 2) Practical, social, personal and research problems were addressed by a lesson plan for participating elementary and high schools which suggested interactive learning exercises, meaningful discussions, and ways to relate the resultant discussions and performance experience to the school-age student’s personal life.  The research hypothesis, that opera performances for rural school children significantly alter their musical experience, interest, knowledge, and the conception of music and the cultural arts as it pertains to their personal and public lives, was measured by qualitative and quantitative analysis.  All students involved in the project, including the school-age children and their teachers and supervisors, were asked to participate in qualitative post-performance surveys. Quantitative results measured the number of attending public school audience members, the type of school represented and the students’ ages and their musical knowledge and experience.  Additional analysis tools included post-performance surveys, question and answer sessions, thank-you letters and drawings, reflection journals, synthesis papers, a Service-Learning Guide, and a Director’s Notebook. 


Fall 2001:  Hansel & Gretel

The production of Hansel and Gretel during Fall Semester 2001 was the first attempt to define an opera production as a research project.  Although the operas presented prior to Hansel and Gretel had been effective as performances, several questions were raised which suggested that opera as research would be more beneficial to the audience as well as the student performers.  These questions included whether or not an involved (and expensive) set and costumes was necessary for a successful production; how the different ages of public school students perceived the performances; how the performance space contributed to or detracted from the performance; whether or not the performances were adding to the public school child’s musical and artistic knowledge; how to involve the public school child in the actual performance, and if the performances were significantly contributing to the public school child’s learning and critical thinking abilities. 


Hansel and Gretel was specifically designed to provide research data that would begin to answer the above questions.  The opera was based on the theory, Opera As an Intervention for Rural Public School Children.  In order to facilitate an ongoing application of the theory, four goals were defined to allow for both qualitative and quantitative analysis, as defined by Bringle and Hatcher, of the process of preparing and presenting an opera and for effective measurement of observational and statistical data resulting from the performances.


The goals were:  1) Development of a production that is “fun” and provides a basis for interactive and interdisciplinary learning.  2)  A study of effectiveness of opera performances by both qualitative and quantitative means, including questions about prior musical knowledge and experience of school age audiences and their reactions following the production.  3) The use of opera performances as a means of incorporating service-learning interactive and interdisciplinary learning into both higher education and K-12 school settings.  4) An enhancement of the training and experience of the SMSU students involved in “Opera Viva” by their direct involvement in interactive and interdisciplinary learning and in community outreach and public Affairs.


An additional benefit of selecting the story of Hansel and Gretel is that it was widely known, even by the youngest school-age child.  This resulted in many invitations to perform in schools, providing a large base from which to collect statistical information.  Over 4,000 people attended the various performances of the opera.  Of these, approximately 3,000 were K-12 students representing eight different schools.



Trochim’s “Idea of Construct Validity”(2000) was an effective guide for the degree from which inferences could be made from the data gathered at the performances of Hansel and Gretel.  Eight initiatives were formulated to provide a basis for the theoretical constructs designed to test the theory and the resultant hypotheses.  Through observation, as well as a statistical evaluation of the production of Hansel and Gretel, effect constructs then resulted in new information that is being used to enhance the Opera Workshop Service-Learning School Outreach program.


A professionally staged production of the opera Hansel and Gretel was designed with the following initiatives:  1) offer opera that is accessible and “fun,” 2) provide enhanced reading and comprehension skills and meaningful discussions about sociological and emotional concerns in the student’s educational and private lives, 3) provide a model to school-age children of the Nine National Standards for the Arts, 4) based on experiential learning, 5) provide a lesson plan and interactive and interdisciplinary exercises, 6) present performances for Title I schools and on tour in rural Missouri schools, 7) feature audience participation, and 8) provide new forms of qualitative and quantitative analysis.


Innovative Features

Several innovative features helped shape Hansel and Gretel as a model for future Opera Workshop performances.  Careful advance planning as well as the cooperation and input from the proposed community and school partners allowed interaction that was equally effective whether performed on a stage or in a small classroom.


The elements of “fun” in Hansel and Gretel included additional characters as the Witch’s helpers, set pieces and props provided and/or made by the school age audience members, dances and songs prepared prior to the performance by the school age audience members and then performed during the opera, innovative and beautiful costumes, action with great contrasts (i.e. a scary Witch, gentle angels, the mysterious woods, the Dew Fairy) as well as an emphasis on good diction and effective vocalism from the singers.


In Sound Ways of Knowing, Barrett, McCoy and Veblen (1997) suggest that the capable learner possesses a natural “… tendency to connect, relate, associate and join features of experience and that tendency leads to new understanding” (p. 15).  This new understanding “… constitutes the fundamental rationale for interdisciplinary study in schools” (p. 14).  Based on the results of the quantitative and qualitative analysis, the opera Hansel and Gretel provided the ideal forum in which school-age audiences could be introduced to interdisciplinary learning through a non-threatening and “fun” experience.  A more direct way of illustrating the learning goals for service-learning through music is the following Chinese proverb:


I hear, and I forget

I see, and I remember

I do, and I’ll understand


By participating in the opera performance, the school age child was able to “do” rather than just see or hear.


One of the most innovative features was audience participation.  This was best demonstrated by one performance for a rural elementary school in Southwest Missouri.  The performance was attended by elementary school pre-K through 5th grade students. During the performance the entire 500 plus students stood and sang “Brother come and dance with me” with the cast and also danced in place on the risers.  Additional participation prior to the performance was provided by the creation of the set for the opera by the 5th grade students, including cardboard bushes and a cage for Hansel.  The effectiveness of this specific performance was demonstrated through the question-and-answer session.  The students had so many questions about opera, the performers, opera as a career, and the characters in the opera, that the cast was unable to answer all of them.


The story of Hansel and Gretel was also ideal in formulating discussions about history, opera, music, and sociological and emotional concerns.  Some of these discussions included learning to use a compass to find directions (Hansel and Gretel were lost in the woods), learning to define a proper balanced diet and determining if Hansel and Gretel were eating properly (first act included songs describing food, and in the 2nd act Hansel and Gretel were looking for strawberries when lost) and a consideration of family dynamics (one of the basic themes of Hansel and Gretel is the relationship between the four characters, brother, sister, mother, and father).


The opera was also a model to school-age children of the National Standards for the Arts, (1994, MENC).  The lesson plan included songs for the school-age children to learn and perform.  Orff instrumental arrangements of the music were provided as well as suggestions for improvising melodies for similar stories.  The Witch’s motif, “nibble, nibble,” was learned and then changed.  Older elementary students were encouraged to read the score and to suggest their own ideas for tunes.  “Brother come and dance,” was taught by rote (students repeat teacher’s words and tune until song is learned; older students were encouraged to recognize and define the themes).  School-age students were asked to evaluate other performances and styles they might have seen and to compare these to Hansel and Gretel.  The school-age students created their own dances and art projects based on their study of the opera.  Other stories of lost children, various types of family relationships, styles of living, and types of diets were discussed.


Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences is an effective guide for music educators (1993).  Gardner challenged teachers to convey class content in a variety of mediums utilizing different areas of cognitive strength.  Hansel and Gretel is an example of opera as an alternative artistic as well as educational model that integrates numerous subject areas (history, literature, art, dance, and music) and focuses on several of the multiple intelligences (musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, spatial, linguistic, and bodily-kinesthetic).  Many of these intelligences are self-explanatory when related to music and opera.  Others not normally connected with music are also applicable. Logical-mathematical not only involves the ability to reason abstractly and solve mathematical and logical problems, but is an ability needed when designing and building sets.  Naturalist intelligence, the ability to recognize and classify plants, animals, and minerals, added by Gardner in the late 90s, is applicable to set and prop design as well as to a study of the period in which the opera is set. 


The basic idea behind the use of multiple intelligences as an educational strategy, that even if students  (university as well as public school students) have problems with any one or more of the areas, they would possibly also excel in one or more, is immediately applicable in Opera Workshop productions.  Those students with highly developed bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (dance) can help to train the other students.  Set designers and choreographers who have enhanced spatial intelligence (building and designing sets and planning the overview of dance routines) help train their fellow students, and so on.  Any contact with dance improves general rhythm and enhances singing skill.  The interrelationships from a performance and expressive standpoint are endless and enhance every aspect of an opera production.


Opera is also an ideal medium for experiential learning.  In Freedom to Learn, (1994) Rogers stated that “learning is facilitated when 1) the student participates completely in the learning process and has control over its nature and direction; 2) it is primarily based upon direct confrontation with practical, social, personal, or research problems; and 3) self-evaluation is the principal method of assessing progress or success.”  In order to assure that Hansel and Gretel would be a true experiential learning exercise for the university student performers, the SMSU students contributed to all of the steps in the production process, the lesson plan, art projects, interactive exercises, costumes, make-up, and questionnaires.  The student director and crew assumed the primary responsibility for the production and helped to formulate their own qualitative learning exercises to evaluate goals, the process, and the resultant performances.  The student director also wrote a detailed synthesis paper about personal expectations, the process of the production, and the outcome.  As this was the first paper of this type by a student director, it was used as the basis for an Opera Workshop Director’s Notebook, which will be updated by each subsequent student director.


Statistical Measurement

Qualitative and quantitative analysis was used to evaluate Hansel and Gretel.  Musical surveys were sent to participating schools prior to and following the performances.  The pre-performance musical questionnaires were designed for two age groups, K-4 and 5-8, to query the school-age audience member’s musical knowledge, interest, and experience.  The qualitative Performance Survey asked the audience to evaluate the effect of the performance and to comment on the performance in relationship to similar performances they might have seen.  The school-age students were also asked about their interest in participating in a similar performance.


Approximately 1,300 students responded to the post-performance performance survey.  85 % of respondents were in the 4th and 5th grades, 15% from the 2nd and 3rd grades, and 5% from pre-K to 1st grade.  A significant difference in survey results was created by the performance space.  The Title I school students from the 4th and 5th grades were bussed in to a 2,200-seat performance arts center on the SMSU campus. They saw an hour-long show on a professional stage with lights, scenery, a large gingerbread house, orchestra, conductor, large ballet troupe, and full costumes and props.  These students chose either the Witch or the Angels (ballet dancers) as their favorite characters, and they perceived the acting as the best component of the performance.  Although 85% liked the show and about the same proportion could understand the story, only about 55% could understand the words when sung, most likely due to the difficulty of projecting young opera voices over an orchestra in a large hall without amplification.


Most of the 4th and 5th grade Title I students said they would like to take part in an opera and almost half had already seen a live performance.  For 90%, this was their first opera.  That the Witch was the favorite character was an indication of the effectiveness of the stage set at the performing arts hall where the Witch was pushed into a large oven and the students were able to see the Witch jump out of a big house and lock Hansel in a large cage.  The lighting and set also heightened the “scary” atmosphere of all the Witch’s dances and movements.


During “Opera Viva’s” tour to neighboring Missouri public schools, the rural elementary school students in Seymour, pre-K through 5th grade, saw a 40-minute performance in their school gym.  The 5th grade students made the set, including cardboard bushes and a small wooden cage for Hansel.  There was no gingerbread house for the Witch.  The SMSU students brought their costumes and some props, but the atmosphere was not as dramatic as in the campus performing arts hall.  The Seymour performance had only a piano for accompaniment.  There was an observed and measurable difference in the reaction of different ages to the performance.  The younger the student (pre-K through 3rd grade) the more enthusiastic the response.  These students also seemed to understand the plot and characters better and preferred the more gentle and “nice” characters such as Gretel and the Dew Fairy as opposed to the Witch.  The 4th and 5th grade students preferred the Witch and chose the “violent” scenes as their favorites.  They were also less enthusiastic about wanting to participate in a similar performance.


In order to provide additional information for future Opera Workshop productions, the following question was included on the Performance Survey.  If you have seen other SMSU Opera Workshop performances in your school, which one have you liked best?  And why?  The following sample comments stress the importance of a performance being capable of engaging the interest and attention of the audience.


I didn’t yawn once. 1st grade

The dragon (The Reluctant Dragon) because it had more action.  4th grade

Hansel & Gretel cause it was cool. 5th grade

This opera stuff is really cool.  4th grade

Because he got cooked. (The Witch was shoved in the oven) 4th grade


Contrasts and Conclusions

The responses on the pre-performance questionnaire as well as from the post-performance survey indicated an age-related appreciation of live musical performances, a conclusion that was not anticipated:  the younger the audience member, the more interest in and acceptance of life music in their classroom.  Another conclusion could have been predicted:  the older the audience, the more they liked action sequences, as opposed to gentle moments such as the angel’s ballet.


A conclusion that was anticipated was that the younger the audience, the more acceptance of opera as a performance medium and the more attentive.  When the performance was held in a gymnasium or classroom, the younger audience has an enhanced capacity to imagine the set and the surrounding action.  The older the audience, from 5th grade on, the more critical the students are about the physical setting such as props and set, diction, story comprehension, and opera as an art form.  The older student is also more hesitant about declaring an interest in singing or participating in an opera or similar musical experience.


Qualitative Analysis:  Student Stage Director

Learning from experience is the very essence of Barry Green’s The Inner Game of Music (1986) in which he stressed that learning is all about exploring your own potential.  “Each one carries within us a reservoir of potential … we develop this potential when we face situations that challenge us to perform at new heights of achievement.”  One result of the new service-learning emphasis in Opera Workshop is the corresponding emphasis on experiential learning for the students involved in the class and the performances.  The experience gained by the performers in having to adapt to new spaces and audiences is now enhanced by the added responsibility of planning and being responsible for the entire project.


The student stage director had the greatest amount of responsibility.  The director prepared a detailed report following the performances including preconceptions about the process and conclusions about what was learned.  One of the most perceptive statements was the understanding that just performing could not teach a vocal student everything about working with people or about music and social interaction.  The director realized that only by taking on the responsibility as a director, could new capabilities as a performer be addressed.


Service-Learning and Opera

The service-learning aspect of the Hänsel and Gretel production was a positive reinforcement of the purpose of the Opera Workshop program, to involve people of all walks of life and ages in the ongoing creation of something of beauty.  By designing the opera around the specific needs of the school to be visited on tour, the bond between audience and SMSU student performer was enhanced.  The simple expedient of sharing the creation of a performance with a community partner strengthened the impact of the opera and enhanced the pride of performer and audience member alike in sharing the creation of a work of art.




Armstrong, T. (Ed.). (1994). Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom.  Alexanderia, VA: ASCD.


Barrett, J.R., McCoy, C.W. & Veblen, K.K. (Eds.). (1997). Sound Ways of Knowing.  New York, NY:  Schirmer Books.


Bringle, Robert G. and Hatcher, Julie A. “Meaningful Measurement of Theory-Based Service-Learning Outcomes:  Making the Case with Quantitative Research.”  Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Fall 2000, pp. 58-75.


Gardner, Howard (1993).  Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books.


Green, Barry, (1986). The Inner Game of Music, New York, NY: Doubleday.


Rogers, C.R. & Freiberg, H.J. (1994). Freedom to Learn (3rd Ed). Columbus, OH: Merrill/Macmillan.


Trochim, William M. K. (2000).  “Idea of Construct Validity.” Research Methods Knowledge Base.


Blakeslee, Michael, Editor. (1994) Dance Music Theatre Visual Arts: What Every Young American Should Know and Be Able to Do in the Arts: Reston, VA: MENC.