When Your History Class Takes You to the Opera


Any time students get a chance to engage with course material outside the classroom — listening to a guest lecture on campus or watching a relevant film — it’s beneficial. Classes at Grinnell College frequently make use of these opportunities. Not often, however, do such activities carry a class all the way to the Windy City.

On October 3, 20 students in Assistant Professor of History Kelly Maynard’s class (Tyrants and Tunesmiths: Music and the State in Modern Europe) traveled to the Lyric Opera of Chicago to see a performance of Tosca, Giacomo Puccini’s opera from the turn of the 20th century. The course is a unique interdisciplinary look at music, history, and politics.

“It’s an opportunity to be historical and musicological at the same time,” Maynard explains. “We look at individual operas and how they are conceived, controlled, and shaped and then how they are received critically by audience members in particular historical contexts.” Maynard likes to give her students the opportunity to be in a position to review critically as well. “Actually seeing a performance, hearing it live, makes for a completely different understanding,” she says.

Her students agree. “Experiencing the atmosphere firsthand, seeing people mingling in their opera clothes before the show, was very interesting," says James Meinert ’10. “As for the performance itself, there were incredible differences to watching a taped version. The soprano solos were so loud — the voices gave off an incredible presence and really struck you. You can’t get that from a DVD.”

From the very beginning, Maynard knew she wanted to take her class to an opera. After scouring the web for opportunities to see a live performance, she concluded that the best chance was Chicago. She approached the Department of History, and together they successfully requested funding from the Instructional Support Committee (ISC). “I’m very grateful that Grinnell was able to make it happen,” Maynard says. “The trip itself went off without a hitch.”

The history course is a natural outgrowth of Maynard’s own research interests. Her current scholarship focuses on the reception of the music and ideas of Richard Wagner in French politics and society. Maynard brings a B.M. from the Eastman School of Music to the history department, in addition to her Ph.D. in modern European history from UCLA. “Although it’s very difficult to do, I think it’s really important to be able to talk about the impact of music in history just like you would any other kind of historical material,” she says.

Student responses to the trip to the opera varied widely; Maynard says this is due to the dynamic group of students in the class. “In addition to skills honed in a history or political science major, some bring a love of singing, some play an instrument, while others are interested in theatre or gender issues. Likewise, some students were already gung-ho about opera, and some had never been to one before.”

The students are not quite done with Tosca. Each student is writing a review based upon the experience of the performance, but adopting the perspective of a particular cultural or political figure from the original premiere in 1900 in Rome. It provides a good way for students to apply the historical training they have been receiving in this unique course to their evening at the opera.