Through the technological looking glass: Connecting primary school students to opera

Through the technological looking glass: Connecting primary school students to opera


Dr Renee Crawford – Senior Lecturer, Music Education.

Faculty of Education. Monash University.

Introducing school children to opera has a number of challenges pertaining to accessibility, resources and engagement. Schools in the regional and rural areas of Australia are often disadvantaged simply by logistics as the commute to outer regions is extremely difficult for opera companies. The Victorian Opera has recently grappled with the question of how they can bring the experience of opera into classrooms in an interactive way not confined by the challenges of distance, physical space or exorbitant costs for resources. 

Since 2018, the Victorian Opera has been offering primary schools in Victoria a series of livestreamed workshops and interactive resources that explore the nature and workings of opera for children from Foundation to Year 6. The key success of this program called Access All Areas, is the opportunities provided for interactivity between the students and the opera company’s cast and crew.

Access All Areas: Livestream Program takes students on a journey into the world of opera without leaving the classroom. Students will learn about the process of producing opera including character creation, set and prop design, and how the production moves from the rehearsal room to the stage. Schools across all corners of the state can experience backstage footage and performances livestreamed direct to the classroom. (Victorian Opera Website, 2019)

The first time Access All Areas ran was in May to June 2018for a production of Hansel and Gretel. Four 45-minute online workshops were hosted by Angus Grant and introduced the singers, story, the orchestra, and looked into costume and lighting design. These workshops took place in a studio in front of a live audience of children drawn from local primary schools. Students present in the live studio audience were able to take to the stage with singing and dancing activities at various points. The workshops culminated in a full live streamed performance of the opera from Arts Centre Melbourne.

For students at schools located more than 150 kilometres outside Melbourne, they were given the chance to join in via an interactive online forum while viewing the workshops on screen. Victorian Opera’s Education Officer and manager of the Access All Areas program, Joanna Salmanidis said that: 

All children were therefore given a sense of involvement and participation…The biggest challenge was ensuring that students were engaged during each workshop…To achieve this, we invited local primary schools to bring a classroom of students to our studio-based workshops to ensure interactivity – our very own live studio audience! A secured live chat forum was also available for students and teachers online to engage in real-time…One of the best aspects of this project was getting to watch the absolute wonder and joy experienced by the students each week watching our singers perform live for them. We saw this both in the studio and relayed to us online. (ArtsHub, 2018)

The approach the Victorian Opera has used can be regarded as unified learning and collaboration (ULC). ULC addresses the increasingly changing needs of today’s academic institutions and training organisations to make teaching and learning more self-enabled and interactive, while providing cost savings and rapid return on investment. This unique approach supports the creation of a comprehensive infrastructure for learning that includes people, processes, learning resources, policies, and sustainable models for continuous improvement (Avrhami, 2010). UCL is not a new concept, communication technologies and learning management systems have been used for a number of years to provide remote access to teaching and learning content and interactive engagement. In fact in music education, accessibility to city based expert musicians through workshops and performances to enhance the work done in music classes of rural and remote schools was achieved several years ago using online classroom software such as Elluminate(Crawford, 2013). At the time, Elluminate was used as it unified technologies such as video and web conferencing, phone, instant messaging, learning management systems and social networks to ensure that learning collaboration is fast and efficient. 

It is encouraging to see that unified learning and collaboration continues to be used as a way to overcome logistical and resource challenges in the Performing Arts and provide rich experiences to students. Salmanidis confirmed that the Access All Areas program has so far reached over 1,000 students, some of which were from schools in areas such as Indigo and Penshurst, places where the opera company has never performed due to a range of challenges (ArtsHub, 2018). Since the introduction of ULC there has been a number of developments in cloud, mobile, virtual reality and augmented reality technologies that will no doubt play an important role in how music education may be provided and engaged with in the future. 

In 2019, Alice through the Opera Glassis the next production for Access All Areas. A pastiche built around music by Bizet, Delibes and Puccini, it will be similarly directed by Elizabeth Hill, and Simon Bruckard will conduct the Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra. Workshops will run 22 May to 12 June and performances from 14 to 17 June. All schools in Victoria are able to take part.