Teaching Digital Opera and Music History

Larry W. Peterson

Professor of Music
University of Delaware

I use the computer in a variety of ways to teach both music history courses (for music majors) and two opera courses (for the general university student). For the opera classes, I use multimedia lessons created with Toolbook authorware for Puccini's La Boheme, Verdi's Otello, and Mozart's The Magic Flute plus a lesson using a CD to teach vocal timbre. Students view these lessons in a listening lab with Gateway computers (with VideoBlaster overlay cards installed) connected to Pioneer laserdisc players. In class for music history courses, I use PODIUM and PowerPoint presentation software to provide the outline for each class period and to create an electronic chalkboard. I also use CD TIME SKETCH and Cap Media Tools for visual presentations of musical works that combine sound and synchronized texts. Students generate most of the software analyses.

Opera Movie File

For the past six years I have been using technology in three of my music courses at the University of Delaware. Two of my courses are in opera; one is in music history. "Opera 103" and "Opera 104", "Introduction to Opera I and II," have no prerequisites--no need to read music or have had music appreciation. In "Opera 103," we study six Italian operas; in "Opera 104," we study examples of verismo, opera comique, music drama, singspiel, and operetta. My students are general university students, freshmen through seniors. Enrollment limit is 40, and we turn away between 70-90 students each semester. Enrollment in my "Music History 313: Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Music," is limited to 30 university students, music majors and minors. The course is very "information intensive."

Technology in the Digital Opera Classroom

To understand my use of technology in my classes, it is necessary to know what tools I include.

Technology tools. I use Toolbook software (Asymetrix authorware product) to create lessons that combine performances of opera on laserdisc (La Boheme, The Magic Flute, Otello) or CD (Vocal Timbre). The PC computers have a VideoBlaster FS 200 video overlay card, and a SoundBlaster card. A Pioneer 8000 laserdisc player is connected to each computer.

Application of technology in the pedagogy. There are three lessons for each opera, each lesson related to one side of the laserdisc set for each opera. These are used out of class for the students to explore small details of creative choices made by composers, set designers, singers, and directors. In the case of Mozart's The Magic Flute, we explore the various aspects of symbolism: masonic, musical, and historical. The first 100 students to complete the lessons kept records for me. The average time for using Lesson I was 1 hour and 15 minutes, for Lesson II was 1 hour and 5 minutes, and for Lesson III was 45 minutes. I used the lessons in class only for an introductory session to explain how to use the lesson and again, for exam purposes.

Technology in My Music History Class

Technology tools. In this class, I use PODIUM and PowerPoint presentation software, CD TIME SKETCH and Cap Media Tools Software, and the Internet (World Wide Web) using a multimedia PC computer in the classroom with two large NEC monitors for the student and one small one for the instructor. I also use a Pioneer 8000 Laserdisc player. I have a video splitter cabability to allow students to view only the laserdisc video or to see the computer screen projected. Laserdiscs are used with the Cap Media Tools Software.

Pedagogical application of the technology. The presentation software is used (University of Delaware's PODIUM and Microsoft's PowerPoint) to organize the students' notes by indicating the subject under discussion, as well as for terms, for spelling, and for orientation. Foreign words are common, so presenting the terms is useful both for spelling and pronunciation purposes. Using presentation software replaces the chalk board and the frantic time before class to get everything on the board and the equally hectic time after class erasing it. It is much more convenient to have the information prepared before class and then simply to copy it from computer diskette. Also, these materials are available for later use for exam review sessions and for future course offerings. This certainly makes the entry and exit to and from class more peaceful. PowerPoint allows for handouts either for class use or to assist students who were absent; it also allows the instructor to generate overhead transparencies.

CD TIME SKETCH and Cap Media Tools allow for analyses of musical or dramatic works to be projected in a bubble or bar format; synchronized text pops into view at the appropriate moments as the piece plays. This approach provides visual presentations of a musical work, which aids most students to better understand the form or structure of a work.

I used the Web to present Laurie Anderson and performance art, printing her biography from one of four websites devoted to her work. We explored the websites in class to demonstrate how the Web could be used to learn more about music and I printed an article from one website for the students to study before the exam.

Lessons Learned

I learned that students really like the lessons and, surprisingly, do not mind coming to the music building's computer lab to spend about 3 hours to complete the lessons. I also learned not to put the multimedia lessons at the beginning or at the end of the semester. They work best and are received best in the middle of the course. Also, students claimed that they do not need a glossary or help section. Only a few students use the Notes function to print their notes.

For myself, I learned that with the use of technology in my classroom, I can teach in greater depth than before.

Students liked the presentation software. They claimed it helped them organizes their notes better, especially since the course includes much material each class period. They found that the analytical software greatly assisted them to learn a piece and recognize its structural components.

I have also had positive feelings about the software use. It has enabled me to hold more in-depth conversations about musical works when students had to produce an analysis using CD TIME SKETCH. Unfortunately, I have also learned that if I have the students do analyses, it requires about 2 hours of my time per student to assist them and to grade their work. Thus, I can require students to create analyses only if the class is small (e.g., 10 to 15 students). If the class is larger, I use the analyses from previous classes to assist them to learn the works but do not require them to create new analyses.


Based upon student suggestions for more lessons, I am preparing more lessons so that each course will study two operas with three lessons each, instead of the current practice of studying one opera with three multimedia lessons devoted to it. The rest of the operas we study have no multimedia lessons. Also, I will have the examples published in a CD ROM format this year by ECS so that other schools can use these lessons more easily. I recommend a CD ROM format rather than the laserdisc-computer platform I am currently using. I will print my own CD of vocal timbre examples so that I am not limited by what CDs are on the market. No commercial CD has an example of each vocal timbre on it. (Interestingly, secondary school students are using these lessons at two New York City High Schools this year.)

I recommend presentation software in any course that includes an extraordinary amount of information. It not only assists students in the learning process but, as in the case of music, when combined with graphics or music, can make the course more interesting. I personally preferred PODIUM to PowerPoint because PODIUM was quicker (for me) to learn, and it has MIDI capability, which PowerPoint does not. However, PowerPoint has a slide-viewer component plus the ability to generate handouts and transparencies, which PODIUM can not do. I also highly recommend the two software programs that allow one to present an analysis of a musical or dramatic work. If the instructor has the time, it is a great aid to have the students generate the analyses.

Opera Movie File

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