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Lessons in the Key of ‘Gee’

York Daily Record
Reprinted by permission of the York Daily Record.

Lessons in the key of ‘gee’ Who would have thought kids these days could have this much fun learning about opera?


Papageno, the bird catcher for the Queen of the Night, wanted a wife – a special, beautiful bird-loving girl. Instead, an old, toothless hag sat next to him and offered to marry him. She asked only that he give her one kiss.

His long search for just the right woman had brought him no one and he didn’t want to be alone . . . “so he closed his eyes, held his nose and kissed her,” the storyteller paused, fixed her audience with a knowing gaze and said, “on the lips.”


The universal sound of revulsion bounced around the room as Goode Elementary School’s third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students hung on her every word. The storyteller was opera lyric soprano Yvette Lewis. She laughed with them and finished the story from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” The 775 students at Goode paid close attention to Lewis during two assemblies Tuesday morning.

“Opera is storytelling,” Lewis said Tuesday morning. “The story keeps their attention.”

The York Symphony Orchestra Auxiliary sponsored Lewis’ program. Joan Dockey, chairwoman of the group’s education committee, saw Lewis at Leib Elementary School in the Dover school district last year and was impressed. She arranged to bring Lewis to the York City School District.

Lewis was an elementary school music teacher who sang opera part-time. She taught for 10 years in the Baltimore City and Montgomery County schools in Maryland before she developed her program 12 years ago. She performs the program, “So, This is Opera” about 200 times a year.

“I used opera in my classrooms but didn’t see it presented in any showcases prepared for students,” she said. “What I saw there was the same thing kids could get on the weekend. I know how important class time is, if they are missing instructional time, they should be getting something new.”

Many studies, most recently from the University of California, show a strong connection between a child’s exposure to music and their mathematics and science ability. Music, especially complex music such as opera and classical, strengthens the brain’s ability to accurately visualize problems and differences in objects, the studies show.

Lewis also wants to expose children to opera before they form prejudices.

Nancy Justice, a fourth-grade teacher at Goode, asked her students what they thought of opera before the assembly. “They don’t like it. It’s loud music with no words,” she said.

“They have no concept that it’s a play, either,” she said as her students found seats on the bleachers.

Fourth-grader Tobbyn Snyder, 9, likes the rap group DMX best, but now he likes opera, too, he said. He didn’t think he would like the program, but he came out laughing. The stories were good, he said, because they were funny.

Principal Franklin Gantz and many staff members were surprised at how attentive the pupils were during the program. “We think young people today are only interested in popular music,” he said. “It’s just a matter of exposing them to it.”

Papageno, by the way, did end up with a wife. His kiss had been enough to bring the ugly hag’s inner beauty to the surface and they lived happily ever after.


Brief summaries of the most popular opera stories can be found on the Internet at www.infoplease.com. Scroll down to “Entertainment” and click “Performing Arts,” then click “Favorite Opera Stories.”

There are many books written with opera stories. Two, recommended by Amazon.com are, for children, “Sing Me a Story: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children” by Jane Rosenberg and Luciano Pavarotti and, for adults, “100 Great Operas and their Stories” by Henry W. Simon.


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