Alice Cathelineau, Artistic director of the company “Opéra sur le toit”
“Opera at a priority-education secondary school is a successful socialisation experience.” From September 2014 through April 2015, the Opéra sur le Toit company conducted an educational outreach course centred around opera for a second form (7th grade) class at the François Villon lower secondary school, located in a designated “urban policy” neighbourhood in Paris. The students were invited to create their own musical production* through participation in music and theatre workshops. The learning experience was then continued through outings, concerts and shows. Stéphanie d’Oustrac and Magali Léger, internationally renowned opera singers, served as patronesses for this experience.
On the surface, these teenagers attending a priority-education school (REP) would seem to have little in common with the glitzy world of opera. Yet, exposure to this world would prove to be quite formative for them. Above all, we sought to transmit a group creativity dynamic, which requires, first of all, that the students learn a number of techniques and secondly, that they internalize certain types of behaviour.
Technical learning combined with a creative approach
The students’ experience was based primarily on learning two basic stage disciplines: music and theatre. We taught them the basics of vocal technique, harmony and rhythm, as well as diction and acting techniques. But we felt that it was crucial to teach these techniques through a process of improvisation. Learning a rule involves learning to use the rule creatively. For example, in the project’s initial phase, after a quick voice warm-up, two vocal ranges a fifth apart are identified; the children then take turns improvising in their respective range, while the other students continue to hold the supporting notes. Later, the students learn by heart the texts, music and choreography created especially for them by the artists on the teaching team. Here again, the discipline of memorization is associated with the creativity of their interpretations and the musical and theatrical presentations they can come up with on the basis of the proposed framework.
Instilling behaviours that foster creativity
The experience we propose is based on the internalization of a number of behaviours vital to a smooth running project. Improvisation is only possible when each member of the class is completely focused. The students must learn to see their classmates in a new light. Only careful listening and a positive attitude can establish a climate conducive to creativity and promote the emergence of a productive sense of initiative for all. Finally, the experience of ongoing effort culminating in a good result is formative for the students. A satisfactory artistic outcome is not something that can be achieved immediately. The rehearsals are not always easy for the students, but they must realize that the pride they feel in a fine performance, – in which they are proud to appear and be applauded by their peers, parents, and teachers –, has a price.
In a society in which the immediate fulfilment of desires and the over-stimulation of the senses is encouraged by the mass media, an artistic education over the medium and long term puts the effort required to achieve a powerful result into perspective.
Self-worth as a basis for successful socialisation
The subtle play between creativity and discipline backed by the experience of an ongoing effort to perfect one’s skills is, in my view, a fundamental principle of learning an art. It also seems to be fundamental to the socialization process.
The experience we propose is a complete educational experience during which effort is placed into perspective by the pride inherent in a fine performance and the pleasure derived from creativity. The creative process gives these children a positive image of themselves, which is often lacking in the school environment. This experience can thus help to reconcile these children with their learning experience at school. More broadly, I feel that this perception of oneself as part of a group is a necessary part of successful socialization.
The experience is a real challenge for the participating artists - and I want to thank Flora Donars, Marina Meinero, Maxence Grimbert-Barré and Louis Fatus for their precious work as well as the people of the secondary school for their support - but it’s all worth it in the end. When children in perpetual rebellion against authority, with enormous difficulty concentrating, who threaten to walk out on a whim, find themselves at the end of the project, on stage, with an overwhelming burst of collective energy and end up shedding tears of pride and joy in the dressing room, it is fair to say that something extraordinary has happened to them. Of course, there is nothing magical about this; it is the result of education. A lightning bolt is always ephemeral. We must therefore fuel this spark and instil in them a positive self-image through creativity, over the long term, by helping them develop their talents and become well-rounded citizens.
To bring this about, I can only advocate the merits of classes incorporating artistic and cultural projects, but I would also stress the need to go further in education, and give all children, especially those with underprivileged backgrounds, an opportunity to cultivate an artistic talent. The system (el sistema) practiced in Venezuela should become an international model.
*Happiness Factory, written by Flora Donars, music by Maxence Grimbert-Barré, directed by Flora Donars and Marina Meinero, choral direction by Alice Cathelineau, cello played by Louis Fatus.
 Founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, “el sistema” is a music education programme financed primarily by public funds, which offers street children an opportunity to receive training in music.
Alice Cathelineau is an opera singer and the artistic director of the company Opéra sur le toit. After studying literature, voice and arts & culture management, and working for a number of major cultural institutions (including the Théâtre du Châtelet and the Paris Chamber Orchestra), she is currently developing her artistic career and her arts management role in parallel. Convinced of the need to make art education accessible to all, she has been setting up outreach projects in opera and the scenic arts in sensitive neighbourhoods since 2010.
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