Music for the classes: making opera accessible to grade-schoolers

This profile was published in a 2007 issue of Potash Hill magazine.

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Peter Mallary and Mark Caruso have joined forces to bring 200-year-old
music to life.

The underlying principle of the Metropolitan Opera Early Notes Program, initiated in
2000, was to foster young people’s interest in music through the use of local cultural
resources. Mark, the educational director, was hired six years ago to work directly
with students and teachers.

Collaborating with illustrator Bert Dodson, Peter rewrote the librettos of 28 operas,
ranging from the works of Mozart to Britten, into stories for children. “There is a lot
of humor in the way Peter tells these stories,” says Mark about Peter. “He has a way
of being faithful to the story, while still making it accessible.”

In addition to viewing three operatic performances by the time they are 8—Mark
works with students over a three-year period, from kindergarten to second grade—
students also get a firsthand look at what goes on backstage. “They learn all about
props and special effects like explosions, fires and thunder and lightning storms.
They also learn about how opera singers prepare for a role,” says Mark.

What operas did kids enjoy the most? “The kids really enjoyed Das Rheingold—
the gold, the ring, the power and that very descriptive music–they really got into it,”
Mark says. “Verdi operas have been popular. Nabucco has been a real hit because
it is really dynamic and very accessible. Bel canto is so musically direct, it’s easy for
them to grab onto.”

Mark adds that when he runs into his former students, now fifth-graders, they always
ask him: “Can we go to the opera again this year?”