During Grinnell’s weeklong fall break, 11 students in Opera, Politics, and Society in Modern Europe left the classroom for San Francisco with Kelly Maynard, assistant professor of history, to get an up-close look at how politics and culture influence the development of modern opera.
The idea for the trip began years earlier, when Maynard met Craig Henderson ’63, an opera enthusiast and Grinnell College trustee, on the ride back from the interview for her position at Grinnell. Discovering their shared interest in the world of opera and its importance as a window into history and politics, she later invited him to come speak to her class as a guest lecturer. Henderson was impressed with the students’ discussions and pitched the idea of a class trip to San Francisco.
While it took time for Maynard to work out the details of how the students could receive funding for the trip, she finally decided to take Henderson up on his suggestion. He generously offered up his home and his opera contacts to make sure that the students had an unforgettable experience.
“Everyone they met in San Francisco was impressed with their intellectual sophistication and seemed to derive the same pleasure from the association that I did,” Henderson says. “I hope we can do it again next year.”
Students spoke with opera singers, saw orchestral rehearsals, met with opera critics, and got exclusive backstage glimpses into set design and media suites. They also saw two live opera productions at the San Francisco Conservatory and the San Francisco Opera House, The Magic Flute and Lucia di Lammermoor.
“You can read about how people used to make sets or how people designed opera houses centuries ago, but you can’t get a real feel for it without seeing how everything operates with your own eyes,” says Austin Schilling ’17.
“We got to see firsthand that the history we’re studying in class is alive and functioning today, and is still as rich and complex as it was 200 years ago,” says Elizabeth Allen ’16.
What students didn’t expect was the opportunity to meet with David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera, during one of their tours. With half a semester of in-class study and a rigorous week of immersion in the world of opera under their belts, students were prepared to ask Gockley questions that helped them to discover the modern correspondences to what they learned in class.
“I was so proud of the students; I could tell they surprised him with the quality of their questions,” says Maynard. “He really had to think about his answers, and they walked away with all these fantastic contemporary parallels that we could map back onto the content of the class.”
Through learning about the many complicated components that go into an opera production, these students discovered aspects of opera that they had never expected to be interested in. Allen even discovered an area that may turn into a topic of future research — the way globalization and art collide in modern opera.
“Thinking about The Magic Flute, which is an 18th-century Viennese opera, translated into English in the 21st century by David Gockley, using set design that includes the aesthetics of contemporary Japanese ceramics … it’s something global and contemporary, but still rooted in the past,” Allen says. “Seeing that was a really pivotal experience for me, and I realized that that’s the way I want to look at things in the future.”
“I think my biggest take-away from this experience is that you need to look at things from many different angles,” says Sam Hengst ’18. “When we do readings, we’re so used to just thinking about things in one way, but on this trip we saw that the world of opera is complex, from the actors and singers to set design and the use of technology. It’s a network, and we couldn’t have gotten such a great understanding of that from just reading about it.”