Operatic MOOC

Dr. Swayne lectures from the Estates Theatre in Prague, where Mozart's Don Giovanni premiered

Dr. Swayne lectures from the Estates Theatre in Prague, where Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered

Course: Introduction to Italian Opera
School: Dartmouth via edX
Instructors: Steve Swayne

Want to listen to an opera for the first time? Have you been listening to opera for your entire life? This course is suited for beginners and advanced opera listeners alike!
This course is an introduction to Italian opera, focusing on giving you the tools and experiences to become better students of opera. Act I will give you a toolbox of skills to listen for specific moments and gestures in opera. Act II will focus applying these skills to listening activities with your favorite Italian composers. At the end of the course, we will help you to carry these experiences beyond the course, encouraging you to become lifelong listeners and lovers of opera.

I wouldn’t consider myself an opera fan specifically, but I do like a small subset of operas, most of which are indeed Italian. What I am is a proselytizer for MOOCs (while they’re still truly open; hurry, folks, because doors are slamming all over), and a writer friend told me he’d be interested in something on opera. So when I saw this on the edX schedule, I jumped at it. Turned out to be a good move; it was a great class. And it was nice to revisit some old favorites. It’s been a while.

The first three weeks introduced three analytic tools: the auditory microscope (close listening), the auditory telescope (historical development), and the auditory filters (structural conventions). The next three weeks used these tools to look, in turn, at bel canto operas, then Verdi, and finally Puccini and his contemporaries. I found the lectures fascinating; I’ve been listening to this music for years, but I had no idea so much was included in the opening duet of The Marriage of Figaro or the orchestration of La Traviata.

Grading was based on a variety of written assignments, some peer assessed, some self-reported. I decided to do this as a “recreational MOOC” so I didn’t do much of the writing, but the assignments were quite well-defined to develop listening and analytic skills introduced in the lectures, without demanding any specific knowledge of musical notation, theory, or composition. My impression is that they also allowed students with more musical background to work at their level as well.

Four sessions of “Office Hours” via Google Hangout were scheduled over the seven weeks, to answer questions raised in the forums. These were highly interesting; I enjoyed them greatly. Plenty of other resources for listening and exploring opera in various capacities were shared, both by staff and by students. The course Twitter feed was very active; in fact, the Dartmouth EdTech team was highly involved. I don’t go much for badges, but I do go for organizational support of MOOCs, and that was very evident here. I have another Dartmouth literature MOOC coming up in February, and I’ll be interested to see if the same thing holds.

Steven Swayne is a highly engaging lecturer; I wondered if he’d done any operatic performance himself, but it seems his performance strength is piano. He’s got that enthusiasm for the subject that so many good profs have. The material was well-organized and clear, the exercises relevant and just structured enough.

The “Finale” video, after all the lectures were lected and the assignments written and the course closed, was a beautiful example of how opera moves us, even when we aren’t aware of it as opera. The operatic scene from Philadelphia makes me cry every time I watch it – and I’m not even a Maria Callas fan! And I was reminded of Aretha’s peformance of “Nessun Dorma” at the Grammys back in the 90s: what a marvel. It was a lovely Thanksgiving present, and I’m grateful.

The course is going into Archive status, which means anyone can enroll and work the entire course at any pace, though not for any kind of certificate. Obviously there won’t be much (if any) forum activity, and there won’t be any peer assessment or new Office Hours – though I understand the videos of this session’s hangouts will be available.

I’m not sure the course will convert a symphonic specialist (or a Taylor Swift fan) to opera, but I once scoffed at opera until I was lucky enough to get a guided tour, so anything’s possible. In any case, I’d recommend this to anyone, at any level of musical expertise, as an enjoyable and informative overview of Italian opera.

Bravo! Hoping for a sequel on contemporary opera, or maybe even German opera (with these guys, I might even sit still for Wagner… nah, probably not), …


2 responses to “Operatic MOOC

  1. Pingback: Falling MOOCs | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Keep Calm and MOOC: early 2017 plan | A Just Recompense

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