Tell Me What You Feel Like: Simile Arias in Agrippina
For this activity, students will need the reproducible handouts entitled Tell Me What You Feel Like, the synopsis, and the illustrated synopsis.
English / Language Arts, Poetry, Close Reading, Creative Writing, Drama
- To strengthen students’ comprehension of Agrippina’s characters and story
- To increase students’ comfort with a common poetic device (the “simile”) and its use in Baroque opera
- To foster students’ creativity and communication skills through discussions, optional acting exercises, and a creative writing assignment
COMMON CORE STANDARDS
This activity directly supports the following ELA-Literacy Common Core Strands:
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.
Create interpretive and responsive texts to demonstrate knowledge and a sophisticated understanding of the connections between life and the literary work.
Arias demanded a lot of Baroque composers and librettists. On the one hand, they needed to be profoundly expressive, since the aria was the one place where characters could articulate their emotional responses to the wild events taking place onstage. On the other hand, arias needed to be breathtakingly virtuosic: Audiences wanted to hear high-flying feats of vocal acrobatics, and singers (whose paychecks relied on their enduring popular appeal) wanted arias that would showcase their abilities. In other words, arias had to be deeply moving while still leaving plenty of space for vocal fireworks, and composers and librettists had to develop a variety of techniques for delivering a maximal emotional punch through a few carefully chosen words. One of these techniques was the “simile aria,” which uses carefully constructed metaphors to reveal a character’s innermost feelings and thoughts. This activity will introduce students to three simile arias from Agrippina, help them analyze the arias’ poetry in relation to Agrippina’s plot, and invite them to create a simile aria of their own. By completing the activity, students will gain a better understanding of both Agrippina’s story and the poetic and musical conventions of Baroque opera, thereby equipping themselves to actively engage with Handel’s opera as it unfurls on the cinema screen. Students will:
- Learn about similes and practice identifying and using this common rhetorical device
- Apply what they have learned about similes to analyze three arias from Agrippina
- Craft their own “simile aria” in response to one of the opera’s scenes
- Share their work with the class
In this activity, students will investigate and analyze a common form in Baroque opera that incorporates both musical and poetic elements: the “simile aria.” Through a series of steps that involve close reading, group discussion, and improvisation and performance, students will delve into Agrippina’s story and craft a series of new simile arias, expressing the opera’s story through their own poetry and imbuing the plot with their own creative insights.
A good understanding of Agrippina’s plot is fundamental to the success of this activity, so begin by distributing the synopsis or illustrated synopsis. Depending on your class’s strengths and needs, you can have your students read the plot silently, direct them to read it out loud to one another in small groups, and/or invite them to act out scenes from the opera as short skits in front of the class. Ask if students have any questions.
The jumping-off point for this activity is the simile, a rhetorical device that occurs in both poetry and prose. If your students are already familiar with similes, you can skip to the end of this step and discuss the examples available on the reproducible “Practicing Similes,” or you can skip this step altogether. Otherwise, begin by writing the following phrases on the board:
- My feet are like ice.
- She ran like lightning.
- The lion’s purr was like thunder.
- This cookie is like a rock.
Distribute the first reproducible sheet for this exercise, “Practicing Similes.” Then ask your students what these four sentences have in common. Encourage all answers, but guide the conversation toward the following observations.
- They all compare two things:
- feet : ice
- running : lightning
- lion’s purr : thunder
- cookie : rock
- In any given pair, the two things that are juxtaposed are very different.
- Although the two things are different, the second thing helps us understand some crucial attribute of the first:
- Since ice is cold, the speaker’s feet must be cold.
- Since lightning is very fast, the girl in question must have run very fast.
- Since thunder is loud and “rumbly,” the lion’s purr must also be loud and rumbly.
- Since rocks are hard, the cookie must be very hard (because it is stale or overcooked).
Write the word “simile” on the board and offer your students the following definition:
A simile describes an object through a comparison to another object; this comparison is often introduced by a word such as like (my feet are like ice) or as (my feet are as cold as ice).
For teachers who wish to dive more deeply into similes and their role in poetry and prose, the reproducible also includes a list of similes from famous works of literature. Invite your students to find the simile (hint: look for the word like) and discuss why the comparison forms a useful description.
In a few minutes, we will return to similes and their importance in Baroque opera. But first, we need to develop some musical vocabulary. (If students have already completed the music activity in this guide, entitled Arias of Influence, teachers may choose to skip this step.)
Dramatic moments in opera tend to fall into two broad categories: the moments in which things happen, and the moments in which people express their emotions in response to these events. In general, these two kinds of scenes are accompanied by different kinds of music. The “actions and events” music is called recitative, while the emotional music is called aria.
Each scene in a Baroque opera typically begins with some dialogue (in recitative) about an action/event, and then a character responds to this event with an aria. For example:
Recitative: Agrippina tells Nerone he will be emperor.
Nerone's Aria: “I feel so happy that I will be emperor!”
Recitative: Poppea tells Ottone she can’t see him anymore.
Ottone’s Aria: “I feel very sad because Poppea dumped me."
(More extended definitions for both recitative and aria can be found in the Ten Essential Musical Terms.) Introduce these terms to your students, and invite them to spend some time in groups exploring the distinction between recitative and aria through short improvised scenes. For instance, Student 1 might tell Student 2: “You just won the lottery!” Then Student 2 could reply: “That makes me so happy!” and hum an upbeat tune to express this happiness.
Once students feel comfortable with the dramatic purpose of the aria, write a new term on the board: “simile aria.” Begin a short, class-wide brainstorming session. Based on the previous two steps, what do students think this term might mean? Again, accept all answers, but guide the conversation toward the following definition:
Instead of expressing emotions through the formula “I feel …,” a simile aria expresses emotions through the formula “I feel like …”
- Instead of “I feel so happy that I will be emperor,” Nerone might sing, “I feel like a playful puppy enjoying life while my mom takes care of me.”
- Instead of “I feel very sad because Poppea dumped me,” Ottone might sing, “I feel like a lonely island sitting by itself in the middle of a cold, dark sea.”
It’s finally time to turn to Agrippina’s libretto. Divide students into two groups. Give all the students in one group a copy of the reproducible “È un foco quel d’amore”; give all the students in the other group a copy of the reproducible “Ogni vento ch'al porto lo spinga.”
Invite your students to read the introductory paragraph that describes the aria’s position in the opera’s story. Next, have them carefully read the translation and rewrite the aria in their own words (in prose) to ensure they understand what the character is talking about. Ask your students to identify what the simile is in the aria (it may be one thing, or it may be more), and invite them to discuss (in their groups) why this simile is useful for describing the character’s emotions in this scene; space is provided for each of these steps on the reproducible handout.
Put students in pairs comprising one student from each of the two groups established in Step 5. Have the student who studied “È un foco quel d’amore” explain this aria to the other student and vice versa. Then distribute the text of the aria “Come nube che fugge dal vento.” Have students—still working in their pairs—identify the similes at play in this aria. Do they recognize these similes? Why did Grimani bring them together here? (Educators preview: “Come nube che fugge dal vento” uses both wind and fire to describe Nerone’s mental state; in other words, it brings together the two similes that students have already studied.)
Now it’s time for your students to craft a simile aria of their own. Divide your class into several small groups and give each group one panel from the illustrated synopsis of Agrippina. Explain that their task is to write a new simile aria for the scene illustrated on their panel. Invite them to approach this task by following the steps outlined below; the reproducible “Writing a Simile Aria” will help guide your students through the process.
- Describe what is happening in this scene in your own words.
- Choose one character and identify what emotion that character must be feeling. Make a short list of words that describe their emotional state.
- Brainstorm some similes that might describe one or more of the emotions you listed in the previous step. (The examples from Agrippina focused on the similes of storms and fire, but your students may choose any simile they like.)
- Pick one or more similes that will form the basis of your aria text.
- Write a poem using these similes; it does not need to rhyme. (Students who have done the other activity in this guide, Arias of Influence,may wish to have their poem follow the A–B–A format of a da capo aria.)
To bring this activity to a close, invite your students to present their new arias to the class. If there is a new simile aria for each panel in the illustrated synopsis, you might choose to present the scenes in order: Congratulations—your students have just created a brand new version of Agrippina!
It might seem like the “simile” in a simile aria is limited to the poetry, where the librettist can express the simile in words, yet composers often took great pains to express these ideas musically, too. As a follow-up activity (in class or as homework), invite your students to listen to these three arias and think about how the music expresses or embodies the storms and fires of the texts. Each of the arias is readily available online.
You may also wish to invite students to consider how simile arias helped composers and librettists satisfy the twin requirements of the aria: virtuosity and expressivity. Why might it be beneficial to use a simile rather than simply stating an emotion outright?