Volume VI - 2001

English through Opera
by Ninah Beliavsky

Dr. Ninah Beliavsky is an Assistant Professor of ESL at the Institute of ESL at St. John's University, Queens, New York. She holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in applied linguistics from Northwestern University and a B.A. in linguistics and psychology from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and Madison. Previously, she taught ESL and linguistics at Queens College of the City University of New York.

     In that moment, I felt that I was one of them. I can really understand their feeling. It is amazing. I never have this kind of feeling before. I think that if the story without music, I maybe would not love this story so much. Taiwanese ESL Student

     Unlikely as it may seem, ESL students can become totally involved in opera, perceiving subtle as well as strong emotions in languages they can't begin to understand. High motivation and meaning can be among the benefits of the use of this theatrical genre in the English language classroom. By addressing language, traditions, and beliefs, opera can touch the very souls of our students through its music and stories. The themes-universal and familiar to students from Asia, Europe and South America-incorporate human issues: love, passion, hate, greed, honor and death. Students welcome the opportunity to voice their feelings on such themes and to identify with some of the opera's controversial subjects and characters. Those who are young-as well as those who are not so young-have an opportunity to relate similar stories from their native countries and to marvel about how many ideas and values they have in common.

Krashen and Freire

     I agree with Stephen Krashen-"meaning matters" (Wink, 1997, p. 153). ESL students want real life; they want real challenge. They want to hear, see, taste and touch the richness of what our world has to offer. According to Paolo Freire, "Learning should be rigorous and joyful" (Wink, 1997, p. 153). Learning should be active, not passive. Students who are exposed to authentic content in their ESL classrooms often build bridges of cross-cultural awareness between themselves and their peers with diverse backgrounds. They are exposed to complex information and are involved in demanding activities that can lead to intrinsic motivation. Opera can provide exactly such opportunities.


     I usually begin by asking my students what they know about opera or similar musical traditions in their own countries. Since not all students are familiar with opera, I explain that opera is drama set to music. It is made up of vocal pieces with orchestral accompaniment and with orchestral overtures and interludes. Operas are usually sung in the language in which they were originally written. The reason for not performing an opera in translation is that the musical values of certain syllables are not preserved when one changes languages. In some modern opera houses, like the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, subtitles are available on an electronic display. The languages in which operas have been written include Italian, French, German, Russian, and English. [More information on the history of the opera is provided in the appendix to this article.]

Specifics on Using La Traviata

     I do not feel that the original language should limit the selection of which opera to use in the classroom. The translations of the non-English librettos are excellent and are written in literary English. The instructor should have the freedom to select the opera based on its story, themes and music rather than the language it is sung in. My personal tastes and preferences were the basis for choosing the many wonderful operas that I have used in my ESL classes. Perhaps the most accessible of these is La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. This work is based on a play, La Dame aux Camelias (The Lady of the Camellias) written in 1852 by Alexander Dumas. The play, in turn, was based upon the life of Marie Duplessis who, in 1847, died of tuberculosis at age 24. Some say that to this day, people put flowers on the grave of Ms. Duplessis in the cemetery of Montmarte, directly below the church of Sacre Coeur, in Paris. The play became popular in the United States under the name Camille and was made into a wonderful 1936 motion picture starring Greta Garbo (Frieden, and Elliott, 1998-2000). To prepare the students and widen their horizons, it is important to give them the historical background of the times. I ask my students to step back into the mid 19"' century Europe-France, where sexual hypocrisy, prostitution and gambling were widespread, even as they were publicly condemned. Men were expected to have mistresses whom they supported financially-but they had to conceal them and not fall in love with them. These women were called courtesans and were not classed with common prostitutes. Respectable women feared and detested the courtesans (women of the demimonde) and would not permit them to mix in the "polite society", or the high society (beau monde). It was believed that any woman who slept with a man before marriage was thought to be "ruined". Furthermore, these women were presumed to extract their wealth from young men and then abandon them. Therefore, it would have brought shame on a "respectable" family if a son married a woman of the demimonde' (Brians, 1999; Frieden and Elliott, 1998-2000).

The Triumph of True Love

     When Alexandre Dumas ("junior") fell in love with a notorious and charming courtesan named Marie Duplessis, his father was very unhappy. His father, Alexandre Dumas-the author of such novels as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo-was highly respected and wealthy. The father naturally feared that his son would ruin the family's reputation and fortune and, therefore, he forced the young man to break off the relationship (Brians, 1999). Soon after, Marie Duplessis died of tuberculosis, the most common and deadly disease in the 19th century. To avenge himself against his father, the son wrote a novel and then a play. In it, an idealized courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, who loves camellias, proves to be more loving and generous than the hero's father. This story brings out the principle that a good heart is more important than propriety. It suggests that the social distinctions, which split the high society from the world of demimonde, are cruel and hypocritical, and that true love must triumph over all (Brians, 1999). In 1853, the Italian composer Giuseppi Verdi turned the story into one of the most popular operas ever written: La Traviata-"The Fallen Woman." He changed the courtesan's name to Violetta. Violetta falls in love with Alfredo, a young man from the beau monde, but she is destined to die young from tuberculosis. The themes that are constant throughout this opera are love, money and death. This background information can be introduced at various places in the lesson. It could be part of the introduction. However, if the instructor wants the students to do more guessing and predicting, it is best saved for later stages.


     The next step is to present selections from the music to capture the students' attention and interest. Students listen to the original areas and duets in Italian while following along the Italian/English libretto. The four selections I use are duets-one from each act: "Libiamo," "Morro! La Mia Memoria," "Di Provenza il Mar," "Parigi, 0 Cara." It is good to use some of the more famous or popular melodies, which the students might have heard before. In choosing the excerpts, I also try to select those that could help the students predict the story-introducing central characters (like Violetta, Alfredo and Germont), situations, and melodic moods. This will allow the students to get a better idea of the story. At first, I do not reveal the name of the composer or the opera the students are listening to. They have to listen, follow along with the translation, and imagine the characters and the stage: who is singing, how many people, what is their relationship to each other, what costumes are they wearing, etc. The students are also asked to determine whether there is a conflict between the characters, and if there is, to determine the nature of this conflict. The students listen to one aria/duet from each act of the opera with libretto in front of them, and they are asked to predict the complete story from the music that they've just heard. As one Bangladeshi student reflected, "I heard different language, but I read English. It was very unusual like subtitles of the film…" The students were fascinated and intrigued by this unusual and demanding activity and were extremely motivated. A French student wrote:

You can hear the music without understanding what the singers sing because it is not the lyrics that are important but the intonation, the feelings that the singers give to their voices. You can feel happiness when the rhythm is gay and joyful or you may be crying when a soprano holds a note high in the heavens and makes it fall dawn abruptly on the ground as if she was dying.

Cooperative Learning through Speaking

     As Lev Vygotsky said "It's fun to talk with a friend while we learn" (Wink, 1997, p. 153). The students discuss the above-mentioned questions in small groups and comment on their feelings and reactions. The responses vary. The students are very creative and intuitive. They often understand from the initial librettos that there is love between two people, that love is impossible, that Violetta wants to sacrifice her love and/or life and that the ending is very tragic. The themes of love, death and sacrifice become apparent from the music and these four librettos. Once we get through these musical selections, I introduce additional subtopics dealing with the origins of the opera genre, the life of Giuseppe Verdi and general historical background of the times. The students are then given authentic reading selections from such texts as The World of the Opera, or an encyclopedia. The reading and discussion of background notes on La Traviata might be either introduced here or after the students complete reading the full text.


     We usually read this opera as a "jigsaw activity." Each group receives only one act, reads and studies it, and discusses it with the members of the group. At this point students answer simple "wh" questions (Where, When Who, etc.) regarding this selection. Then the students are regrouped into new groups. The new group consists of one or two members who know each act of the opera. They can share their knowledge and engage in cooperative learning in order to answer more complex comprehension questions about the complete opera, and do close exercises, and vocabulary and grammar exercises. At this point, every group knows the complete story of the opera. By engaging in these "information gap" activities, the students are forced to exchange information in a natural way. These language activities are not artificial or meaningless-they are embedded within discourse. Hence, the students are exposed to a considerable amount of language while learning interesting content.


     The next step is writing. The students have to answer hypothetical questions and record their feelings and answers in their journals. Some of the questions that I assign for journal writing are:

o     If you were Violetta, would you have given up Alfredo for the good of his family
o     Do you think that Violetta was a noble woman?
o     Did she truly love Alfredo?
o     If you were Alfredo, would you ever forgive your father?
o     Do you think that the father will ever be able to forgive himself and reconcile the situation with his son?

     This is one of the pre-writing stages to essay writing-which follows. I usually assign a question such as cause and effect or analysis for the essay. Students need to write an essay with a thesis statement and development.

     To the first question: "If you were Violetta, would you have given up Alfredo for the good of his family?" students reacted in various ways. However, regardless of their cultural background, their responses were similar. I think that because such themes as love, money and death are universal, they transcend all cultures and can reach ESL students from all over the world. For example, one Taiwanese student wrote: "If I were Violetta, I am not as noble as she, I wouldn't give up my real love. Especially when I knew I had a serious disease and was going to die, I can't let my love gone without love…" A student from France wrote: "If I were Violetta during this century, I think I would have acted in another way… I think I would have given to Violetta all the powers of revenge against the father…"


     This lesson can serve as a bridge to many other activities. As part of experiential learning the students can watch the movie Camille, research other operas, historical events and composers. For example, they can read about other works by Verdi (i.e. Rigoletto, Aida, etc.) They can listen to other operas and go to see one. This lesson incorporates all the traditional elements and skills of language learning-listening, speaking, reading and writing-in a way that encourages the students to learn. Students are exposed to complex information and are involved in very demanding activities. These activities are not artificial but authentic and contextualized. They can also help students develop critical thinking skills thus leading to intrinsic motivation. Motivation is everything. Let me share with you what the students themselves had to say about this lesson.

Student Comments

A student from Dominican Republic wrote:

Today's class was so different, but I really should say it was special. I was so surprised the way that the class was taught today. I hope that I get another class like this one.

A student from Egypt wrote:

The story was wonderful. It filled me with emotion, sacrifices, love and sadness.

A student from Taiwan wrote:

I never heard any opera before you gave me this chance in class… It is so beautiful that using music to express the human feeling and romance of love.

A Chinese student wrote in her journal:

Dear Diary, I had tears in my eyes while I was listening to the type of the Opera: La Traviata. The music was great. I just love it. My emotion was going up and down with the music. I can almost understand the story while I was listening to the music. The strong beats of the music, high tone singing and the combination of the different singers just make the store so wonderful and also with the sadness. I can almost picture the store while I am listening to it. I think that is why I love music plays so much. After reading and listening to the whole story, I just can't think about anything else for a long time. People told me that you would do anything to make the person you love happy. Everything will be worth it when you see the smile form his face. I don't quite believe that before, but I am now somehow believing that. People said that music is the soul of life. I strongly agree with that. With out music life will be dead, no fun.

Another student from Taiwan recalled a story she had heard in her childhood:

I think it is a very beautiful story. The story is made by author but it is a real story. It is like an old Chinese story. When in the class, I listened to the music and imagined the story. I can get a very emphasized feeling. I felt that I was in the theater and looked at the opera. I never thought that music and libretto can give people so great image. In that moment, I felt that I was one of them. I can really understand their feeling. It is amazing. I never have this kind of feeling before. I think if the story without the music, I maybe would not love this story so much.

     A few other students compared this tragic love story to the impossible love between two young people in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Others compared "Violetta's sacrifice to Behrman's sacrifice in 0. Henry's "Last Leaf.." A final note: A few students were so moved by the music and the story that they cried in class and asked me to bring in a schedule to the opera season at the Metropolitan Opera. Others begged me to tell them a story of another famous opera. Meaning does matter and interesting content peaks motivation-students want to know. As one student said: "This is a special way to read a story. I hope we can read another story like this and hear the opera or see a beautiful painting."

Appendix: Notes on the History of the Opera

     The English word "opera" is an abbreviation of an Italian phrase "opera in musica" ("work in music"). It names a theatrical form consisting of a dramatic text, which is called a "libretto", which in Italian, means a "booklet" or a "little book". It may be in verse or prose; it may be original or an adaptation of an existing play or novel. A libretto is combined with music, usually singing. In addition to arias (solos), duets, ensemble, and choral singers, an opera may include a group of instrumentalists and dancers. There may be spoken dialogue, but that's very rare. More often the music is continuous and is designed to dramatize the action and display the vocal skills of the singers (The Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Third Edition).

     Opera began in Florence, Italy in the late sixteenth century where a group of scholars and musicians promoted the principle of simple melodic declamation imitating ancient Greek drama. In 1637 the first public opera house opened in Venice. The opera of the 17th and 18th centuries featured mythological scenes. Romantic elements entered in the 19th century. Opera with spoken dialogue, or opéra comique, led toward operetta, and also toward the serious, lyrical works such as Georges Bizet's Carmen. Giuseppe Verdi and, later, Giacomo Puccini-in such works as La Traviata and Madama Butterfly-exemplified the lyric-dramatic Italian style. The l9th century saw the birth of Russian opera in Mikhail Glinka, Peter Tchaikovsky, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. The 20th century gave us works by such composers as Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergey Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein among others.

     Operas are usually sung in the language in which they were originally written. The reason for not performing an opera in translation is that the musical values of certain syllables are not preserved when one changes languages. In some modern opera houses, like the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, subtitles are available on an electronic display. Operas have been primarily written in Italian, French, German, Russian, and English. Some examples of famous operas are: La Traviata, Rigoletto and Aida by Giuseppe Verdi, Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini were written in Italian; Romeo and Juliet and Faust by Charles Gounod and Carmen by Georges Bizet were written in French; Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner and Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, in German; Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky and Eugene Onegin by Peter Tchaikovsky were written in Russian. There are also many great operas that were written in English. They include Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, The Great Gatsby by John Harbison, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Lowell Liebermann, The View from the Bridge by William Bolcom, Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten, and Nixon in China by John Cooledge Adams, just to name a few.


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