The sound of music

Published 7:00 pm Saturday, October 20, 2012

Neveln Elementary students rehearse a number during a teaching residency in September through the Minnesota Opera. Eric Johnson/

Students in Austin learned all about opera recently and will now be able to show off to Austin

Southgate Elementary School was alive with Mozart, with Chopin, with Italian and with dance parties earlier this month. Students practiced their Italian, their German, and their English. They identified roles and soliloqueys, learned about Handel and Wagner, and danced without care to some of the most well-known opera pieces in history. In short, they immersed themselves in opera.

Bergen Baker

“They just love it,” said Bergen Baker, Minnesota Opera teaching artist. “The love the color and the grandeur.”

Baker, an opera veteran, came to Austin Public Schools in September as part of a teaching residency through the Minnesota Opera. She worked with elementary students from each school in town, introducing them to concepts like surrealism and teaching them the proper way to applaud a performance. Though Baker only had a short time to teach each class — in some cases only 25 minutes — many students were positively affected, according to music teachers.

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“They delighted in learning Italian words, and that always extends to other areas in music terms,” said Margo Bissen, Southgate music teacher. Bissen organized the opera residency after hearing about it at a teaching conference in February. She said her students learned much about musical terms in opera, which will make it easier for them to understand other music concepts as the year progresses.

“The language was a really fun component for them,” she said.

Tim Murray, a junior studying voice and theatre at the University of Minnesota rehearses with Neveln Elementary student Kelsey Swanson last September during a teaching residency through the Minnesota Opera. Eric Johnson/

Opera isn’t just singing, however. It’s a combination of art forms, according to Baker. There’s dance, there’s music, there’s theatre, and there is plenty of art to be found in the costuming and backdrops of each opera.

“It’s four art forms in one,” Baker said.

Some of the elementary students were able to experience those artforms, as each school’s choir program put on a short presentation based on Mozart’s works during Baker’s time there. Students learned bits and pieces of Mozart’s most famous works to perform in front of their classmates over a three-day period.

Those choirs won’t soon forget their performance, as they’ll demonstrate their piece in front of a larger audience at the end of the month. Each school’s choir will perform “Through the Ears and Eyes of Mozart” together, in collaboration with the Austin Symphony Orchestra’s show “Mozart, Moldau and MacDowell,” the opening performance of its 56th season which will take place at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28 at Knowlton Auditorium.

Rodolfo Nieto

The show will feature several guests, including Austin High School graduate Darrin Sellers, who will conduct the overture from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” In addition, Rochester pianist Horacio Nuguid will play Edward MacDowell’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.” Baker and fellow Minnesota Opera artist Rodolfo Nieto will also perform, joining the 135 or so students performing Mozart.

“I really don’t know that these kids are ever going to have that opportunity again, unless this brings them to delve into an opera career,” Bissen said.

Baker wrapped up her residency here in early October, the biggest residency yet for the Minnesota Opera and her first residency as a teaching artist. She said she was excited to see how much the students enjoyed opera and will hopefully benefit from learning about it, especially the younger students.

“They don’t get it as much as the fifth-graders do but they get something out of it,” she said. “They get exposed to it, they see color and they hear beautiful music and they understand that something amazing is happening.”

And the students are showing that understanding in the classroom, according to Bissen. Elementary boys are not usually keen on singing music with higher vocal parts, but Bissen has noticed more of her students willing to sing higher register pieces she introduces to the class. In addition, each student evaluated their experience with Baker, letting teachers know what they liked and wha they wished could happen.

“At the end of the evaluation there was a question that said ‘I wish…,’” Bissen said. “There were many students that said I wish I could be an opera singer.”