(STEM + A) x Arts Integration = Opera


Backstage at the Vienna Opera. Photo:  Jeff Keyzer . Used under Creative Commons license.

Backstage at the Vienna Opera. Photo: Jeff Keyzer. Used under Creative Commons license.

As the Community Education Director, it made sense that Jamie Andrews and I first met in the context of Project Opera, Minnesota Opera’s excellent youth education program. Dedicated to building opportunities for young people, Jamie’s smarts and experience make him a joy to work with. It’s an honour to hear his thoughts on opera and education, and we’d do well to pay attention. —Wu Chen

STEM is defined as an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the ability to compete in the new economy.

Arts Integration as defined by the Kennedy Center for the Arts is, an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meet evolving objectives in both.

Two ideas that have been making the rounds in the world of education is moving STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) and Arts Integration. One aspect of these two ideas that is similar suggests that, without the arts, the pedagogies of science, technology, engineering, and math (and any number of other disciplines), are not complete. To fully understand a subject, engaging with it artistically is a fundamental necessity. It is a belief that a student needs to create using the elements of an idea or concept to be able to internalize it. Or to put it in another way, that the benefit of the arts is through creation and not observation, similar to how the benefit of athletics is through participation, not watching it on TV.

The inclusion of the arts is an interesting idea, and one that has some non-alternative facts supporting it. Conversely there are plenty of people who believe a STEM education should remain STEM, and arts integration is only diminishes the understanding of the subjects studied. The arguments on both sides of the topic are quite interesting but beyond the scope of this blog post. I will focus on how opera, through STEAM and Arts Integration, is well-suited to advance the pedagogy of arts education, including technical theater education.

Making the case for STEAM (I’ll just assume we are all on board with this idea) and technical theater is fairly easy—math skills needed to create a flat, knowledge of technology to use the saw to cut the wood to build the flat, science to know that you need to stop the bleeding from the cut you sustained from using the saw to cut the wood to build the flat, etc.

But making the case for STEAM and opera education is not as obvious. Usually when one thinks of opera education, singing is what probably comes to mind first. I have worked as the Education Director for fourteen years at the Minnesota Opera and can attest to the many times the first comment people ask after they learn where I work is, “Oh! So you must be a singer.” And this is not just the random person on the street. This might come from a music teacher, college professor, or professional artist.

This default thinking is especially difficult when you get into the smaller subset work of opera education. The idea that education programs from an opera company would include technical theater is unsupported by current practice. For example, craftsmen and designers are not asked to make teaching part of their work. The companies that hire these workers are often uninterested in adjusting job descriptions to allow for this sort of engagement. And funders want to support what is most obvious to them—what they see on stage.

Moving towards the artists of the future

Obviously singing in opera is a key component. But how do we get past that? How do we leverage all the elements of the art form and resources of an opera company to serve the needs of the community? How do we change the way we teach about opera to the general public? Moreover, how we do create artists of the future who are not siloed in their understanding of the art form. Think of this as arts integration for the education of artists.

Opera has been described as the original multimedia art form for a multimedia age. It’s the combination of music, theater, and dance, all in an elaborate spectacle. The stories can be of epic love, tragic affairs and are even funny once in a while. One might think that for a contemporary audience that embraces The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones, opera might not be that far out there.

Yet the way in which we teach opera is segregated. Attend a pre-performance talk before almost any show throughout the country and you will learn about the music and plot. This is the same for ubiquitous education programs that go into schools.

In terms of artist training, singers learn vocal technique, languages, and acting. Instrumentalists learn their instruments and may learn a little about opera through their music history classes. Stage directors live in the spoken theater world. Dancers in the dance world. And the technical folks… well? How do you learn your craft?

Of course these are some very big generalizations, but my point is that the way we teach, talk, and advocate for opera may not serve us in the future.

What’s next?

Fellow Minnesotan Ben Cameron talks of the Cultural Reformation that is upon us. The 95 theses have been nailed to the door but are we, as cultural institutions, like opera companies, ready to open it? While there are many issues facing cultural organizations that are outside any one organization or one industry’s purview, rethinking how the art is taught and how one advocates for it, is not. What do we want opera artists to be in the future? And how do we get there? Do we want to continue to segregate training, so that singers only know about singing, and designers only know about design? Or is there a way we can train people under the umbrella of an “arts education” that encourages them to be stronger advocates for their art, whether that art form is theater, music, opera, or design? Or, through the lens of arts integration, can we teach music in a way that informs and enhances technical education (and vice versa), and does not diminish either subject area, to ultimately create better artists? I think there is.

But starting at the very basic levels of arts education and reconceiving its methodology and pedagogy, we can create artists truly versed in STEAM education. Imagine an elementary student learning the basic ideas and concepts of stage craft while learning simultaneously the basic tenets of storytelling and acting.

Additionally, imagine artist training that includes advocacy for their art as a basic skill that is as important as being able weld, memorize lines, and match pitch. When artists are trained from the very beginning to speak of the impact that the arts has on one’s life and community, then they can be empowered to really effect change in their audiences. Moreover making the assumption that the value of one’s art is self-evident to others may inadvertently elicit a negative perspective in an audience, thus erecting a barrier preventing them from experiencing new artistic expression.

These are large ideas and the path forward is not entirely clear, but moving from STEM to STEAM may be a place to start. It has many positive outcomes, including the potential to transform the way in which art is taught. We need to keep thinking about it and trying to define what success looks like. And before you know it, the artists of the future will be us.


To continue digging into any of these topics, I encourage a look at the following resources: