Drama, Choral Music, Instrumental Music
- The reproducible handouts for this activity
- Technology for presenting a PowerPoint to the class
- Laptops and access to Google Slides, Canva, PowerPoint, or some other slide deck platform
- Any items from around the classroom that can make a noise (get creative!)
Common Core Standards
This activity directly supports the following ELA-Literacy Common Core Strands:
Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g. visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.
Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history.
Verdi began composing Falstaff at the ripe old age of 80, unsure that he would live to complete it and struggling with intermittent bouts of depression. His determination to complete the work was surpassed only by his incredible skill in writing it. Jump into Verdi’s final operative composition (a comedy!) then think quick (Mistress Quickly!) with a slapstick game of “PowerPoint Karaoke” inspired by the farcical shenanigans of the larger-than-life Falstaff characters.
STEP 1. WARM UP
We will begin with a fun and funny warm-up to get us on our feet and improv-ing! Following the steps below to play a rousing game of “Terrible Presents.” Work to stay engaged as a class and support others in the room by adhering to the “Rules of Classroom Theater” listed here. Read the rules as a class and add any other norms the group agrees are important.
Rules of Classroom Theater
- Collaborate with your peers
- Have a “yes, and” mentality
- Respect school norms for language and content
- Be creative! Think outside of the box.
Now that we have a corporate understanding of some of the basic components of successful improvisational theater in the classroom, it is time to get on our feet and hone our skills of persuasion.
To begin, the group must stand in a circle. Player #1 in the circle (whoever wants to go first) will mime handing the person next to them a “present.” This person must open the present and tell the group what they have received. Whatever comes to mind is excellent—the stranger the better (e.g., “Oh great! Oh great! A moldy sandwich! Just what I wanted!”). Then they must mime repackaging the gift and hand it to the next person in the circle who will repeat the process with a different “present.” Extra points for keeping a straight face!
STEP 2. POWERPOINT KARAOKE PLOT SYNOPSIS
Verdi’s final opera is a huge departure from the 27 operas that preceded it. One of the elements that stands out is the physical comedy that is inherent in the telling of the storyline. Actors use physical comedy, exaggerated facial expressions, and stunts to drive home the punchlines of the plot. Instead of playing the long, singable melodies Verdi is most famous for in his other operas, the orchestra is active in the storytelling. More akin to a modern movie soundtrack than an 18th-century opera, Verdi’s orchestration participates in the humor of the show with humorous swirling in the strings and chuckling in the brass, for example. Compared to Verdi’s other operas, many of which have main characters dying, it is quite a departure. In 1887, Verdi is quoted as saying: “After having relentlessly massacred so many heroes and heroines I have at last the right to laugh a little.” I think you will agree!
The storyline for Falstaff was created by combining elements of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV. Verdi and his librettist Boito used the basic plot of Merry Wives as the main story for Falstaff, then augmented and fleshed out the characters with elements lifted from Henry IV. Combined, the two works tell the hilarious tale of John Falstaff, a man desperate to marry into wealth, and the scheming characters around him who plan to foil his plot.
Now, it’s time to learn the basic storyline for the show. We will use an improv game of “PowerPoint Karaoke” to tell the plot. Read below for rules.
- Divide the class into three groups, one for each act of the show.
- Select two members of each team to present to the class. The other members of their team will serve as the sound effects crew.
- Allow five minutes for the sound effects crew to gather materials that they might use to make sounds that support or augment the presentation. (Example: banging pencils on the table, squeaking a shoe on the floor, making kissing sounds, air horn effects from your cellphone, etc.) Make sure to practice creating each sound so that you know if it will happen readily when you need it.
- The Act I group will go first. Have the two presenters step to the front of the class so that they can present. Use the Act I slides provided to tell the story of Act I of Falstaff. The presenters may not look at the slides in advance, instead they must improvise the plot based on what they see on each slide. Beware: some slides have only a few words or items on them!
- As the presentation is occurring, members of the Act I sound effects crew will add sounds to the improvised storytelling when they feel so moved.
- At the conclusion of the Act I presentation, the presenters will then read the actual synopsis for Act I. Students will discuss the differences between their improvised ideas and what the actual details of the plot are.
Repeat steps 4 through 6 until the entire plot has been presented.
STEP 3. EXPAND
Discuss the following questions as a class:
- What were the main elements of the plot that stayed the same for both the improvised and actual portrayals?
- What parts of the actual storyline were left out of the PowerPoint version?
- How did the sound effects improve the storytelling?
- How did the effects take away from the storytelling?
- Could any of the sound effects made in class by miscellaneous items be imitated by an orchestra? If so, how might orchestration reflect the original intent of the sound effect?
- Now knowing the entire actual plot, how would you adjust the sound effects if at all?
Expand this activity by inviting students to listen to the short clip on the Met’s YouTube channel (just search for “Falstaff, m’ha canzonata metropolitan opera”). Pay attention to the way the orchestra creates sound effects that support the humor of the text and stage action. Share your reflections with your group.