Students learn about the importance of gestures in baroque opera through viewing and practicing them.
- to teach students that baroque opera involved body movement as well as music, and that physical motion and musical material were intimately linked in the 17th and 18th centuries
- to demonstrate how stage gesture can affect one's interpretation of an opera scene.
Class: Music 97a: Music History and Repertory: Medieval to Baroque
Introduction/Background: This class surveys Western music from the middle ages to ca. 1750 and is required of all music majors. In this two-day activity in section, students studied baroque acting gestures and the music of Handel's opera Acis and Galatea. Opera singers during the baroque period used specific gestures to emphasize words and illustrate emotions. This activity teaches students that opera - especially baroque opera - is more than the notes that appear on the page. By asking the students to perform baroque gestures and critique the gesture that a performer uses, they experience opera in an embodied way.
In preparation for day one, the instructor gave each student an index card on which was written the name of one of two arias or the chorus in Acis and Galatea. Verbally and in an email, students were instructed to study the musical characteristics of the aria or chorus whose name was on the index card they had chosen (email instructions attached). The students used the scores of the arias and chorus, which were printed in their course books.
During Class: Day 1
- First, the students discussed the musical characteristics that they had identified in their assigned aria or chorus.
- Next, the instructor asked students to think about what it meant to be an 18th-century actor or opera singer. Together, the class watched watched a clip from the 1990 Cyrano de Bergerac film that portrayed a 17th-century theater performance so that the students could visualize a typical baroque stage.
- Then, the instructor described the main types of baroque acting gesture (indicative, imitative, and affective). She asked students to stand in a line at one side of the room and showed them how to execute particular baroque acting gestures that Handel might have used in his opera. She demonstrated a gesture, and students imitated her movements. Then, they discussed what types of gesture might have been used in the arias and chorus that they had just discussed with one another.
- After finishing the activity, the instructor gave the students their homework assignment for the next class. Students were to watch a performance of the final Acis and Galatea aria ("Oh, ruddier than the cherry") on YouTube. They then had to critique the staging by looking for instances of baroque gesture or other types of gesture, and to consider how the gestures that the performer used corresponded with the music of the aria.
During Class: Day 2
The students presented their YouTube videos and discussed as a class the presence or absence of baroque gesture in each video. Finally, they debated how they would stage the final aria of Acis and Galatea.
Choose 3-4 basic baroque acting gestures for a student to learn; fewer gestures would sacrifice variety, and more gestures would inundate the students with too much information.