St. Olaf College | News

Teaching the art of opera-making

At St. Olaf College, our campus is an important place for students to develop community and learn with one another. But we also know that venturing beyond the Hill can provide invaluable opportunities for students to put their studies into practice. 

During Interim 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of St. Olaf music education students did just that at Prairie Creek Community School. Located in Northfield, Prairie Creek is a K-5 charter school that provides child-centered education. Throughout the month of January, Oles worked with the 180 students at Prairie Creek to put on an original operatic piece. 

The course, led by Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Dale Kruse, was part of St. Olaf’s Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) program that enables students to apply academic knowledge and skills to address community issues. ACE facilitates the development of skills, habits of mind, and relationships that prepare students for future internship, research, civic leadership, and work roles.

“It’s so immersive. There is nothing in their education pathway here that gives them quite this experience,” Kruse says. 

Throughout the process, the Prairie Creek students helped the Oles come up with melodies and lyrics for the songs in addition to choreography and blocking. “It’s really a student-led activity, and we’re just kind of here to guide them along,” music education major Sophie Vogel ’22 says.

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The experience provided an opportunity for music education majors to understand what a real classroom environment is like, with both its rewards and its challenges. Working directly with students allowed the Oles to gain direct practice for their intended careers. 

“The Oles bring so much to this experience,” says Director of Prairie Creek Community School Simon Tyler. “First of all, they bring their enthusiasm and energy. They also bring an admirable flexibility to create an opera with students in kindergarten through fifth grade — it’s quite a logistical endeavor.” 

The efforts the St. Olaf students put into teaching and building relationships with the students at Prairie Creek extended beyond the success of the final operatic performance. By sharing their insights beyond the Hill, Oles helped enrich arts education and engagement within the Northfield community. 

“I think the opera itself brings the chance for a whole community to come together,” Tyler says. “What we know about kids and young kids and how they learn is that they perform better, they learn better, they’re more interested if they’re in relationship with the adults who are working with them, and they forge very strong bonds with the St. Olaf students.”