Tag Archive for Erin

Mood + Setting = Music

My favorite moments at Little Opera are almost always the ones I didn’t plan. They’re moments when someone has an idea we all say yes to, and the teachers and students spend the next part of class totally engaged, having a blast, and doing something new.

For this past week’s greatest moment, we have one of our oldest students, Yaidra, to thank. During break, she and Alex Stein (Little Opera composition teaching artist) were playing around at the piano. In a 2-word composition challenge, Yaidra gave Alex two ingredients (a mood, and a setting), and he improvised something to fit it. They were five or six little pieces in before I realized what was going on, and walked over to listen. “Can we play this with everyone when they get back from break?” Yaidra asked. Of course we could.

After Alex flawlessly interpreted a full round of moods and settings (busy downtown; stormy jungle), the game changed: It was time for students vs. adults. Here’s how we played:

– Each group gave the other group a mood and setting

– Each group had three minutes to create a vocal sound-scape to musically illustrate that setting and mood

– Then, we would perform

The students gave the adults a Lively Concert, and we adults challenged the students to create Lonely Bottom-of-the-sea.

kelp forest


The students asked to not have their soundscape recorded (it wasn’t yet publishable, by their standards), but when I heard what they created in three quick minutes on a Wednesday afternoon, here is what I was struck by:

– All 7 of our Tchaikovsky students jumped into the work of creating the soundscape together. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the collaboration take place. Everyone added an idea. Everyone said yes. And every idea added something important.

– Every single student looked like a comfortable, confident performer. For 7 middle-schoolers to put something complex together in 3 minutes and perform it giggle-free for a whole 66 seconds is a serious accomplishment.

– What they made was a practically perfect representation of the prompt we gave them. It was lonely. It sounded like the bottom of the sea. There were 7 distinct parts that all played against each other — some melodic, some rhythmic, some environmental. And it sounded really, really good.

– Erin Bregman

A Year-End Wrap in Plus/Delta/Challenges

At the end of every Little Opera class, we do two things: Ask kids to share their plus/delta/challenges for the day, and sing a song. In the spirit of closing off 2014 on a similar note, here are my own top 10 plus/delta/challenges from the last year at the helm of Little Opera.

Queens spying


(the hands-down highlights)
      1. Watching Little Opera students watch the opera they wrote being performed by professional opera singers at our first ever Little Gala.
      2. Building sets, props, and costumes in the beautiful theater and courtyard space at Urban High School.
      3. Successfully projecting live supertitles at the packed, sold-out Season 3 finale performances at the Community Music Center in May.
      4. Listening to one of our students tell me that she would never get too old for Little Opera, not even when she went to college, because afterwards she planned to come back and teach it to the little kids.
      5. Spending a day with 9 adults in San Francisco, creating an opera-in-a day about God (on the moon) and an asteroid named Astro.
      6. Slowly but surely beginning to master quickbooks and the world of small business accounting.
      7. Claire & I going to our first ever Foundation meeting, and being awarded our first major grant ($15,000 matching grant from the Henry Mayo Newhall Foundation!).
      8. The parent of a child on a needs-based scholarship handing me a donation of $50 because, she said, her son loves Little Opera so much.
      9. Sitting at a planning meeting in West Portal, and realizing that I get to work with some of the best teaching artists and people I know.
      10. Receiving a text message at 7:30am from a 6th grade Little Opera student telling me how excited she is for class that afternoon.


(what I would change for next time)
      1. Student recruitment. It inevitably happens all in a rush at the start of the school year – there’s got to be a better way.
      2. Documenting the opera-making process. There are so many great things that happen during class and I often forget to do simple things like take a picture, record quick video, or ask students to write down what just happened.
      3. We didn’t have a proper cast party last year, since our last performance was the last meeting of the year. This season, that’s going to change.
      4. Parent involvement. How can we get the parents actively participating in some parts of the opera creation process?
      5. Utilizing our advisory board in the best way possible. And asking more people to join it.
      6. Write more grants. Write more grants. Write more grants.
      7. Try more new things, go out on longer limbs, and make bigger mistakes. 
      8. Ask for help more often. On things I’m both comfortable and uncomfortable doing.
      9. Run a summer camp. 
      10. Focus more intensely on building an earned income stream. This will probably be on my delta list until the end of time.


(what was just plain hard, but got done anyway)
      1. Running a non-profit. Everyone says it’s hard. It’s really, really, really hard.
      2. Growing the program, and expanding into middle school. There’s a whole list of sub-challenges for this one, which I won’t expand on here.
      3. Building and maintaining the Little Opera website with little to no design experience to speak of.
      4. Being in charge of a team of 7 teaching artists, and getting used to the idea of being the one in charge.
      5. Unexpected and still unexplained health issues that sometimes make it difficult to focus, write, or teach.
      6. Asking for money. Every single time.
      7. Working to maintain at least one other job at all times, because Little Opera isn’t yet sustainable enough to pay its own way.
      8. Getting used to the fact that my to-do list will never get any smaller, and that it’s okay to not do things on it that don’t absolutely have to get done.
      9. Claire’s transition into a full-time job at the Symphony. She’s still an integral part of Little Opera, but I miss seeing her every day.
      10. Keeping my toes warm. This office is freezing!


– by Erin Bregman
Founder & Artistic Director


Little Opera Meets New Play Development

2014-10-09 17.35.09-1

When we asked Little Opera families for suggestions last May on how we could make the program even better, one particularly insightful parent wrote:

“It might be interesting if the kids could do a workshop type thing, maybe in January, to hear questions from the audience and so they can add details for the final spring performance. Most of the comments from family and friends are that they don’t understand the story…but the kids have ready answers and might have incorporated them, given enough time.”

It was a spot-on observation, and a brilliant idea. As a playwright, I spend a fair amount of time immersed in the world of new play development, and set out to investigate what the new opera workshopping process looks like.

After hearing more than once that new opera workshops are rare, I was lucky enough to connect with Jim Schaeffer at the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York, who happens to specialize in new opera development.

His advice? Break it down:

      1. Run a workshop for the libretto, and set it up exactly like you would for a new play workshop. Do it as a staged reading with actors, not singers.
      2. Later, run a workshop of the full score. Get singers and a stage director involved, and have them do a staged sing-through of the entire opera’s score.

Why bother to workshop twice? Because, as Jim said, it’s important to know early on if a libretto can stand alone as a piece of dramatic writing. Music is what takes center stage in a finished opera, but if the original text isn’t very compelling, music can only add so much. For the purpose of Little Opera this year, we broke it down even further:

      1. A story workshop, based on the story outline the students created together
      2. A libretto workshop, based on the first draft of the full libretto
      3. A Music Workshop, based on the first draft of the opera’s melodies.

In mid October, we ran our first story workshops, and they went better than I ever could have imagined. Here’s what happened:

    1. Students (or teachers, depending on the age range of the class) presented their story outline to other students and teachers who had never heard the story before.
    2. Students engaged in a feedback session, based on Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. For the kids, that meant listening to the audience’s pops (things that excited them) and questions (things that were confusing, or they wanted to know more about), without saying anything in response. The kids asked each other excellent questions. In fact, the caliber of questions was higher than many new play feedback sessions I’ve participated in with adults.
    3. Later, each group compiled the questions asked by their audience, and for each question they decided as a group:
      • – Do we want the audience to know the answer to this question?
      • – If yes, do we think the answer is already clear in our story?
      • – If it’s not yet clear, how can we make it clearer in our story outline?

In early December, we’ll run phase two of this year’s development process: The Libretto Reading. The feedback process will look very similar that of the story workshop, but this time the Libretti’s authors will also be in the audience. I can’t wait to see what our students discover about how their operas are taking shape by watching professional actors bring their words to life.

– By Erin Bregman
Little Opera Founder & Artistic Director