by Alyssa Cowell
Engaging students with new music is a great way to broaden their understanding of musical genres. Sometimes, students are resistant to devote time to styles of music that aren’t trendy or familiar. I like to assign listening assignments, and look for ways to make technically challenging, historically significant music more appealing to the new listener. One strategy is to find a way to connect the stories of past works with their more contemporary counterparts and get a student to listen to both! The following are a few examples of operas and their more up-to-date reboots to ease a student into more sophisticated listening!
Aida, meet Aida
Giuseppe Verdi’s 1871 masterpiece set in Ancient Egypt is full of all the romance and tragedy one could hope for in an Italian opera – ill-fated love, secret identities, tragic deaths, Aida has it all. It has been performed in opera houses around the globe since its premier and is a standard for many opera houses. Elton John and Tim Rice’s take on Aida has been similarly popular as a modern take on the same story, with new music and a little twist on the ending.
La Boheme vs. Rent
Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme tells the story of starving artists scraping by in the slums of 1890s Paris. A ragtag bunch of good-hearted free spirits love, laugh, and starve together through the winter, trying to sing their way through illness and exposure, only to meet with tragedy. Jonathan Larson’s Rent is almost the same story, except now the setting is a 1990’ East Village.
Madama Butterfly or Miss Saigon?
A young wife waits expectantly for the return of her absent husband, ready to surprise him with the news of an infant son only to discover that he has married another woman since leaving her. If the story takes place in 1904 Japan, you’re listening to Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. If the setting is 1970s Saigon, you’re listening to Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Miss Saigon. Both shows tell the heartbreaking story of a mother’s sacrifice to provide a better life for her child.
Orfeo ed Euridice to Hadestown
A husband’s journey to overcome the odds and reclaim his lost love from the Underworld – a story from antiquity that has been told and retold. Christoph Wilibald Gluck’s most famous operatic composition, Orfeo ed Euridice was the first in a new style called “reform” opera and was performed for Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa. Hadestown, the updated version by Anaïs Mitchell sets the story in a 1930s post-apocalyptic version of the United States and leans heavily on the influence of New Orleans style jazz. Don’t worry, Orpheus still must make his way to the underworld to confront Hades.
As new composers rediscover old stories, it is inevitable that we would get to experience revivals and retellings – it allows new generations to connect with the past. It is worth taking the time to search out some of the less popular iterations of these tales, if only to understand how generations of the past were using the styles of the day to create new art. Each new recitation breathes fresh life into what could otherwise be forgotten and is worth preserving.