Tag Archive for Story

Is the Witch Always Evil?

At the start of my lyric writing process with the Humperdincks this year, I had some ideas I thought would be great ways to invite their literary voices out to play. With the right prompt or writing cue, I was certain I could tap into an inexhaustible supply of excellent, silly, original material. Is the witch always evil? Do the owls have to sleep in a nest? What kind of food would King Giraffe serve to his guests?

But asking my students, for example, to use a pencil on a piece of paper to write about emotions and relationships and the contours of a character’s personality (complicated and nuanced stuff for any writer to tackle) was like making a beeline for the most recognizable thing on the landscape — the ordinary ways of describing something: good, bad, sad, scared. That meant there were few detours on the way to the hive. It was a good start, useful in gathering momentum, but ultimately too circumscribed.

This is not to say that commonplace means uninteresting; it just means more obvious. I was being too technical with my expectations, too literal for the little ones. I also realized it wasn’t exactly “freeing” for the kids to write spontaneously when every other word represented a new spelling puzzle they had to solve.

I believe writing is an interactive art: what we write has to come from somewhere, has to have its root in some place, even when we write about something unprecedented, wild or unfamiliar to us. It demands that we act and interact, and engage dynamically with a story.

Zeke Acting Mouth Open

And oddly enough, acting has always been a kind of writing for me. It allows the chance to inhabit a space with more possibilities than are apparent when you’re just staring at a blank page. What I didn’t think about till a little later, humbled by my students’ honest responses to my “brilliant” invocations (“Miss Eva, this is boring”), is that inspiration doesn’t appear because we ask it to, or even when we ask the right question, necessarily. It happens when we are connected, when we are communicating with our experience of something, and letting it dictate to us.

I decided to give the kids an opportunity to “walk around” in our opera first, and connect with it from a place that relied less on their ability to match cause to effect and more on their instinct to stretch the truth. I introduced acting games that gave the kids a means to expand their view of what the characters in our opera might be thinking and feeling, anticipating and dreaming about.

Beginning the process of writing lyrics to our dramatic moments by first enacting those moments proved a perfect segue. After that, the kids were more eager to playfully push against the traditional ways to tell a story with language. At that point, metaphors came out to play, as did wacky rhymes and funny poems. I realized, too, that I could assume the role of scribe, while they could write by doing — acting, drawing, dancing, singing — and leave the perfect spelling to me.

– By Eva Langman
Lead Teaching Artist 2014-2015

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

True Stories

Children are full of stories. At least three times during every class, we’ll listen to a passionate digression about an exciting moment from their week, or a funny thing that happened involving a slide and a shoe. Stories are an integral part of what shapes our understanding of the world: the way we string together what we see colors our sense of belonging and our relationships to one other. And I’ve noticed that at a certain age, kids are poised at a precipice where they are concerned with being able to properly tell the “real- life” stories that surround them. They want their apples to fall close to the tree, because that is the truth of apples, and children are learning that the truth is one of the most significant virtues. As they grow to value that, it’s no surprise they want to show others that they do.

The first step in the process of story creation at Little Opera has been to honor the children’s appetite for talking about the ordinary, everyday stuff, and to creatively explore their roles in the many contexts and communities they are daily members of. It’s an important responsibility to be yourself, isn’t it? And it is understandably a source of pride for our kids to want to express themselves by starting at the source: sharing stories with each other about the things they feel and know.

Story brainstorm - H 10.1.14

Once we are more comfortable being ourselves, and can relish in that expression — “This is me! Here I am!” — our fantasies are free to run wild and we start to tell bigger stories with more features and less constraints. This is the part of story writing where we ask kids to answer the “never-ending whys,” since even in the highest realms of our imagination, there must be causes and reasons for things, however silly or strange; there must be an internal logic to it all. And in this process of getting at the “truth” of our tale, exploring its themes and characters, desires and consequences, we grow new skins — which can include feathers and scales, of course.

– By Eva Langman
Lead Teaching Artist 2014-2015

Old Operas, New Discoveries


As a newbie on the Little Opera team, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about my point of view and how Little Opera is transforming my relationship to the art form that I adore.

Opera is unique in a lot of ways.  It’s everything at once, all the time, just like our closing song says.  As a performer, it can feel like a speeding car that should crash and burn every single night, but miraculously, through the incredibly hard work of hundreds of professionals on and off stage, it doesn’t.


When done thoughtfully, opera has the potential to be historical and emotional and political and psychological.  It can cut a direct path to hearts in dire need of catharsis — the universality of the human voice can access the deepest crevices of the soul better than anything I know.  Opera starts with something absolutely normal (singing) and blows it up to epic proportions, while expanding every emotion along with it.

When done right, opera is unmatched in emotional and artistic potency.  As performers, we’ve done our job when the audience leaves the house feeling something.

At Little Opera, I watch our students explore these elements for the first time.  Even our youngest students (2nd and 3rd graders) come up with the most sensitive and brilliant ideas, and I am witness to fascinating bursts of imagination. These kids can tell you all about how a song feels and why.  Without even trying, they’ve grasped concepts that take most adults years to understand.

Selfishly, I must admit that I thank my lucky stars that American opera’s future audience members are so excited about this wild world.  To be connecting children to this type of culture at such an early age is invaluable, and leaves a lasting impression.  Any number of these kids might find their way into some kind of career in the performing arts, an incredibly rewarding pursuit.  Who knows, maybe some will be my colleagues in another few years!  I hope to be so lucky.

But in the meantime, I’m also starting to sing from a new perspective.  As I discover the stories in the various shows I’m working on, I’m reminded that each work’s origin is rooted in someone’s imagination having run wild.  Somewhere, hidden behind the centuries, multiple editions, and countless arguments about how any number of styles and composers should be sung and played, someone had an idea that turned into each of these masterful works.

And as I now watch ideas turning into operas at Little Opera, I am making a point to honor that in a new way.

– by Ariana Strahl
Partner Teaching Artist, 2014-2015