School Desk

Opera aficianados


A dozen third graders encircled the grand piano and watched as Michaela Harel, a music teacher at Multiple Intelligence School, PS/MS 37, played five chords, each louder than the one before.

“Do you remember what a crescendo is?” Ms. Harel asked the class on Dec. 13. “It’s going to come up in the opera.”

She pressed down the same keys, producing a series of sounds that echoed around the auditorium.

“You start soft and then go loud,” one student said. 

Ms. Harel spent class time preparing third graders to attend the final dress rehearsal for the Metropolitan Opera’s abbreviated, kid-friendly, English version of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville on Dec. 14. As a MET educator, Ms. Harel brings students to watch professional musicians prepare for their opening nights. 

Over the course of the year, she has so far taken one group of eighth graders to see L’Elisir d’Amore cast members practice and another to attend a rehearsal of Aida, which featured live horses on stage. 

PS/MS 37 students will also get to attend a Le Comte Ory rehearsal and tour the backstage of the MET, as well as watch cast members prepare for La Traviata.

The Dec. 13 class started with a lesson on opera etiquette. Students reminded one another not to eat in the theatre, not to use phones and when it was appropriate to applaud. 

Ms. Harel then gave students a little background on the composer, Gioachino Rossini. She said he was born in Italy a year after the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was a child star and traveled around the world like Michael Jackson, earning money for his family by performing in castles. 

Rossini’s composition skills were so advanced that it was easier for him to write a new page of music if he dropped one than to retrieve the sheet, Ms. Harel said. 

Students then began studying the opera’s title.

“Who knows what a barber is?” Ms. Harel asked.

“It’s when they cut your hair,” Jordan Lane said.

“And what colors are on the pole outside of barbers?” Ms. Harel said.

The class shouted out “red,” “white” and “blue.” Ms. Harel explained that the trademark revolving poles were left over from medieval days when barbers performed all sorts of tasks, from medical procedures to note deliveries. The class practiced saying “factotum,” a word for people with an array of responsibilities. 

Students reviewed the characters and plot next. Ms. Harel explained that several men are vying to marry Rosina, a wealthy, young maiden living with her guardian, Doctor Bartolo. Doctor Bartolo wants to wed her for her considerable dowry, but “that’s not really fair to her because he’s kind of like her foster father,” Ms. Harel said. 

Count Almaviva introduces himself to Rosina by serenading her from below her balcony. The town barber Figaro comes and warns the count that Doctor Bartolo also seeks to marry Rosina. 

The two devise a scheme in which the count disguises himself as a soldier to gain access to the doctor’s home and to meet Rosina. But Rosina’s music teacher, Don Basilio, warns the doctor that the count is in town, and the doctor then vows to marry her quickly to prevent him from interfering. A series of disguises, trickery, songs and jokes mark the men’s pursuit of Rosina.

Students watched a video clip of Figaro’s famous aria, “Largo al Factotum,” or “Make way for the Factotum,” with English subtitles. The barber leaps around outside his shop, singing about how busy his business has been. He opens his jacket, revealing one set of pockets with a razor, comb and scissors and another set stuffed with money.

“I’m here. I’m there. I’m upstairs. I’m downstairs,” the barber bellows in Italian.

As Figaro mimics the orders he’s receiving, his song grows faster and faster, which Ms. Harel explained is called a “patter.” 

She also challenged the class to identify the crescendos in his song.

Students nodded and began pretending to conduct and play trombones, flutes and violins when Ms. Harel asked if they recognized a later melody often played in Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Jordan announced, “I want to be in opera when I grow up.”

Other students, including Kaylana Felipe and Emely Trinidad, were excited about the upcoming trip to The Barber of Seville rehearsal.

Kaylana said she’d been waiting “forever” to see the opera.

“I love Rosina the most,” she said.