Sue Clark: Aria ready for some ‘Bel Canto’?
“Women are fickle!” (La Donna e Mobile), boomed Pavarotti. Popular opera arias floated from my car for the weeks before my English class began to study Ann Patchett’s book, “Bel Canto.”
My school has a class set of this novel, based on a true story of a hostage takeover in Peru in 1996. Patchett’s artistic license has the main character, a famous opera singer, being held with the group for several months. So she sings.
I’d read the book in 2001 and forgotten most of it, but I remembered its magic. Countering Pavarotti’s tenor with my own contralto, I got the side-eye from other drivers.
“Vissi d’arte,” I sang to them. I live for art! I live for love!
I bought a tape of the book and alternated between aria and audiobook. I cackled to myself, thinking of my 11th and 12th graders responding to opera. “They’ll roll their eyes!”
Let the rolling begin, I thought. I enjoy pushing students through eye-rolling to learn new concepts. They had just read “A River Runs Through It,” and some were less than enchanted with fly fishing. My mantra: “You don’t have to like it, but you’ll ultimately be glad you learned about it.”
We started with quick reports on topics related to the book. One group presented opera stars and explained opera. Another reported on the Stockholm Syndrome, giving good information. I said, “It’s like here. You have to be in the class for two hours, and yet you grow to like me.” They said that was a bad example. Still more students delved into the actual Peruvian hostage crisis.
We read the book in three parts, like the acts of an opera. The kids’ forte is discussions. One girl asked me if I realized that one of the female terrorists was named Carmen. “Like the opera!”
I hadn’t thought of that, but yes! Then we looked up the meaning of Beatriz, another young terrorist. Her name meant happiness and kindness. “But she’s mean,” said a boy, “she hates everyone.” “Keep reading,” I said.
I assigned each student an aria, and reassured them they did not have to sing it, but must get a translation and a video of an artist singing it. We were going to hear about broken hearts, jealousy, narcissistic egos, and original Parisian hippies. One student who was a Kendrick Lamar aficionado agreed when I said that Kendrick could easily write an opera.
Another said she had no patience with all these self-pitying fools who ended up dying of tuberculosis. Therapists were suggested, as well just calming down.
“But then there would have been no opera,” I said. The look I received said, “Exactly.”
Other kids mentioned “Les Miserables” and four boys burst into “Do You Hear the People Sing?” My students live for art. They live for love.
On the day the students were presenting the arias, the journalism teacher, who sang and was in local theater, entered with the choir teacher, who was hauling a keyboard. They’d been practicing “O Mio Babbino Caro” (Oh, My Darling Father) by Puccini. The singer apologized for her high notes, as she rarely sang in the morning. She then began the aria, begging her dying father for some money to get engaged, or she would throw herself into a river.
At the end of the performance, one boy jumped up and shouted, “Bravo,” holding his arms in the air.
As I headed out, I said to the class, “That was the best teaching day of my life.”
“You said that last week,” they answered.
Sue Clark lives in Grass Valley.
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