BLOG: Partnership With the Sarasota Opera Has Students Singing a New Tune

reckBy: Dr. Brianne L. Reck 
Associate Professor
College of Education

What do you get when you mix a Maestro, an opera company, and faculty and students from a college of education?  In a word; magic! It may seem to be an unlikely combination, but through a partnership between the Sarasota Opera and the USF Sarasota-Manatee Center for PAInT (Partnerships in Arts-Integrated Teaching) future teachers and administrators in the College of Education are learning to be better educators by studying the way in which the opera company mounts a production.

In conversations with Sarasota Opera’s Executive Director Richard Russell, Maestro DeRenzi , the Artistic Director, and Ben Plocher, their Youth Opera and Outreach Coordinator, we learned they were interested in developing ways to connect not just with P-12 schools, but with colleges and universities, as well. As Senior Fellow for the Center, I worked with them to pilot a program this fall with 10 candidates from our teacher preparation and leadership development programs.  We went behind the scenes during the rehearsals for the Sarasota Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus. They had a chance to see first-hand the ways in which the work that goes in to producing an opera production is similar to the planning, design, assessment and management educators do on a daily basis. 

It was a powerful learning experience for the students who were part of the project.  As one future teacher put it, “Like the members of the opera staff, teachers must have a passion for their profession in order to make the biggest impression on the lives of young children. This was such an exceptional experience for me, and I look forward to using strategies learned through this program as I begin my career as a teacher of young children.” 

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It was such a success that this spring we agreed to look for ways to expand the project.  One of the goals of the USFSM College of Education is to integrate the arts into our courses and programs.  I saw strong possibilities for helping students learn the principles of organizational leadership through a similar experience. There were clear connections to the Principles of Educational Administration course that is part of our Masters in Educational Leadership program. 

I used the Sarasota Opera Company and their rehearsals for the 2014 Festival’s first production: Verdi’s Il Trovatore as a case study for my students. We met at the Opera House for five weeks, observing rehearsals, holding seminar sessions with the Maestro and the production team, and analyzing the structure and the way in which the Opera accomplishes its goals. Then back on campus, students are able to draw on the experiences from the opera as they continue their study of organizations and the ways in which they can apply what they learned to their own leadership. 

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It is exciting to see the connections that our students make.    As one student summed it up, “A highly effective school leader will make it a point to understand all facets of his team and resources which ultimately ties into student achievement.  We observed the maestro working with the set designers, stage managers, director and financial managers.  He seems to know, respect, value, and utilize individual strengths. He empowers them to do their job and he stays involved for accountability and communication… He brings forth the best in others and he is a role model who loves his work. This is the kind of school leader I want to be.” 

The real power of this type of experience is that it helps our graduate students make theory-to-practice connections to the knowledge and skills they are developing as prospective school leaders. They learn about the possibilities the arts have for unlocking powerful learning for themselves and their students. The seminar discussions that result are lively and the candidates are looking at their own schools with fresh eyes. Best of all, they are learning about one of the cultural treasures this community has to offer, and gaining appreciation for the power of integrating the arts into education.