Who’s Afraid Of Opera? Apparently Bennett, Colorado

In Colorado, cultural awareness seems to be at an all time low as a local community makes plans to dismiss an elementary school music teacher for showing first, second, and third graders portions of an educational video designed to teach children about opera…

Apparently, enough parents residing in the sleepy little bedroom town of Bennett, Colorado complained loudly enough to school officials regarding the video that the district officials are allegedly preparing to terminate the teacher in question, Tresa Waggoner.

I’ve been reading the articles coming from the Denver Post about this cultural travesty and every time I think the events can’t resemble the movie “Footloose” any closer, I’m proved wrong. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that someone in Hollywood is trying to sell Kevin Bacon on “Footloose II – Faustian Foibles” (if the movie does well enough, they could turn it into an opera).

You really should take the time to read the details published by the Denver Post (here and here). Once you do, you’ll see that this twisted tale sounds more like a B-movie screenplay churned out by the latest PowerBook wielding Hollywood hack than real life, but in case you’re too busy here’s my synopsis (B-movie hack screenwriter style and casting superimposed deliberately):

  • New-in-town, eager, fresh faced public music teacher arrives to begin her new job in a farmland strewn heartland of America town (maybe Sarah Jessica Parker could pull off early 30’s?).
  • One day, she notices a dusty VHS tape in the classroom (which was there years before her arrival) entitled “Who’s Afraid of Opera?”.
  • The new music teacher, interested in educating her students about different forms of performance based culture, shows excerpts of the video to her class which include some passages which show Faust, one of the lead characters in Gounod’s opera, Faust.
  • Shortly afterward, the school board superintendent (played by Kevin Bacon) begins to receive complaints from the townsfolk (their leader played by John Lithgow) complaining that their “children were traumatized by the appearance of a leering devil”.
  • Local school officials, unaccustomed to this sort of problem, flip out, launch an investigation, and make preparations to can the teacher in question.
  • Said investigation reveals that some parents think that showing the video, including a depiction of Faust, is a “satanic video” that they think “…glorifies Satan in some way…”.
  • School officials react in full blown panic mode and initiate procedures to dismiss the teacher in efforts to appease parents.
    <In the end, the parents get what they want and the town continues down their road of cultural narrow-mindedness. In the movie version we’ll see Faust (also played by John Lithgow) making another children’s video (cackling wildly), this time assuming the shape of none other than Kermit the Frog! Fade to black…

  • This is an excellent example of just how far removed classical music is from the mainstream cultural consciousness. Although I sincerely doubt the majority of people in the country would find this video inappropriate, the collective consciousness is apparently so far removed that entire communities are diving head first into the realms in intolerance and ignorance.

    Although I’m the first person to stand up for free speech and the right to believe in what ever you want to, punishing a public school teacher for showing an educational video about opera to children crosses a line.

    Having grown up in a Fundamental Baptist household I was exposed to the mentality expressed by the outraged parents in the Bennett community on a routine basis. I have vivid memories of church leaders explaining to me that I couldn’t play Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart on the piano during any part of the church service because the music wasn’t written for the express purpose of glorifying God (by their definition, of course). Nevertheless, they would turn right around and tell me to sit down and play the popular Christian hymn, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee –the lyrics of which are set to the little five note melody from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony commonly referred to as “Ode to Joy.

    It wasn’t difficult to figure out, even as a teenager, that this sort of mindset was ignorant, self defeating, and downright dangerous. Apparently, some of the school officials in Bennett may feel the same way. In one of the Denver Post articles, they quoted George Sauter, district superintendent, as saying he’s “concerned that outsiders might view Bennett as anti-arts”.

    Really? Why on earth would outsiders think that Bennett is a poster-child for cultural illiteracy when parents rise up in protest over a public school teacher showing an educational video about opera described by Rotten Tomatoes, an objective resource for coverage of movies and videos, as:

    World-famous soprano Joan Sutherland and her magical puppet friends present opera programs designed for the whole family. Presented with fun and humor, designed to make adults and children comfortable with this area of western culture. Spotlights two operas: Faust and Rigoletto”.

    All of this just makes my head hurt.

    I’ve actually been through Bennett, Colorado once while on a trip to the prairie lands of eastern Colorado. Although I didn’t realize it then, I’m glad I didn’t pull off anywhere in the town limits with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique playing on the CD player. If so, I might have been picked up by local authorities and questioned about the possibility that I’m an opium dealer with an unhealthy idee fixe.

    The big question here which relates to orchestra administration is whether or not orchestras can do anything to help marginalize the “Bennett Effect”. Personally, I don’t think they can. As a matter of fact, I think orchestras will become even more self-conscious regarding the artistic material they present to public school children. Instead, it will take a concerted effort among individual musicians, managers, board members, and volunteers to talk to people about classical music. If we wait too long, our neighborhoods are going to resemble Bennett, Colorado sooner rather than later and we’ll end up with people like this picketing outside of classical music concerts.

    About Drew McManus

    "I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

    I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

    In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

    For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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    7 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid Of Opera? Apparently Bennett, Colorado”

    1. The saddest part of this article is revelation that music class lasts 20 minutes. What’s the point of even having it? That alone shows where the priorities are. I know they are 1st and 2nd graders, but I remember sitting through a 45 minute music class. I don’t think the kids of Bennett would find it too taxing.

    2. Here’s an interesting little fact- my mother is the music teacher who bought that “dusty” video set. She used it- a lot- in her music classes. Dr. Sauder has stated that he’s trying diligently to get in touch with the former music teacher to find out how she used it. Which leads is to…

      Interesting fact #1- my father, her husband, STILL FREAKIN’ WORKS THERE!! He’s the media specialist for all three schools- elementary, middle and high school. How amusing is that…

    3. I am a shellshocked survivor of the stellar Bennett, Colorado school system… I have vivid memories of being in the elementary school music class, 25 years ago or so… and being amused that we were shown a video of Disney’s interpretation of the “Danse Macabre” – featuring gyrating skeletons in an animated house of horrors… and then horrified at the teacher pronouncing it “Macay-Bray”.

      Ignorance is fun, aint it?

      When we first moved out to that “bedroom community” (read: insane asylum) in 1982, a whole group of teachers had just been fired due to the school board and other philistines’ objections to the teaching of “globalism” which is a fancy-pants city-slicker college-boy way of saying “teaching kids that there are other countries and cultures in the world besides ours”. I was scared of the Footloose nazis way back then in 3rd grade, and I’m still scared of them now.

    4. What is the status of this absurd sequence of events? Having said that, one must be aware that this goes all the way back to the early days of fundamentalist Christianity with a backlash against the Catholic church, including the music. The Catholic music was replaced either by “thumper” music or no music at all. I read some place else that somebody was not allowed to play Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart in the Baptist church because it wasn’t “Christian” music. That is strange. I thought that Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Bach IS Christian music. In fact, it is nothing more than a praise of Jesus. Am I wrong? No, I am not wrong. The people that think it isn’t are wrong.

      I would also like the people of this community in Bennett to look at the following site and comment about his music (I especially like his Tuscan concert):

      Will one of the Bennett parents please comment on whether this would be more appropriate for the children? It probably isn’t because Andre Rieu is using PBS to promote his way into the United States and we all know what left wing radicals they are! Duh, does he really have the second violin produced by Stradivarius? If he does, WOW!

      Teacher, move on. This is a lost cause. Parents of Bennett – I guarantee that one or more of you are going to those sites that advertise ED (erectile disfunction) drugs advertised incessantly on the History channel (my favorite) and most other TV channels, or are answering the tons of ads I get for the same (ED drugs) I see every day in my email box. I don’t see many of them any more because I junk filter them out. Or maybe, God forbid, you are the people looking the 450,000 porn sites I saw in a blocking hosts file some place. Hey, I started to make such a file for Christians and I finally gave up when I saw that file. Now parents of Bennett, if you really want to help, do all of the following.

      [1] Stop answering those darn ED (erectile disfunction) ads in your email. That would bring the flood of that crap into my email box to an end. I can then concentrate on the phish and other malware deliveries.

      [2] Stop being hypocrites and stop going to those porn sites. Hey, you don’t get 450,000 sites without a lot of people going to them including a fair amount of people who say they aren’t going there. There is a warning in order here. Some of these porn sites will bite your machine. In fact some of them will blackmail you if they find out you are and if you are fairly well to do and want to hide it. As a top of the line computer and network security analyst I will guarantee that they will do it!

      [3] Join me in shoving the porn sites into the *.xxx domain. Then we can just block that domain in the browser.

      [4] Put some acceptable guidelines in place for future teachers to follow. I am afraid you have hammered the current teacher to the point that the situation ast it is now is unsalvageable. Actually, I am also not altogether unconvinced that you haven’t given just cause for a top attorney to sue your school district into oblivion. It just depends on whether or not they want to work pro-bono or not.

      Sigh. I am going to listen to Andre Rieu’s Tuscan concert “Piazza della Repubblica in Cortona” now. At least I feel the presence of God’s love and how to show love and try to help people in it. I would not be at all surprised that some of the people in Bennet (and hundreds of other hamlets around the Fascist States of America) would object to that music. In fact, I suspect over half of that town is against it. It doesn’t matter. I am going to listen to it anyway. So there!

      Don’t laugh at the name Henry Hertz Hobbit. I guarantee it is NEVER used except to try and help, but in this situation I am finally going to throw up my hands and give up. Also, I personally do NOT like Gounod’s Faust (personal taste). Here is some of music that I do like:

      And here is just some of the art that I like:

      Now I have already heard too much from pointy headed fundamentalist Christians that this music I just gave you is “from the devil”. When I finally pointed out to them that “Amazing Grace” IS considered New Age music (new age music is really about a search for things that are beautiful more than anything else) they didn’t know what to say. Neither do I, except to say that ignorance does not bring bliss.

      Teacher, I wish you well in your career and hope that you don’t think this experience reflects badly on you. It doesn’t! As I see it, you made an error in judgement only. Now having researched this a little more, I think the material in question is really more appropriate for fourth through sixth grades. First through third graders are probably not ready for it yet. I also suggest running some of the music you intend to play in the future past other teachers first. I wish you well in your life and pray you get a good position some place else where your talents will be appreciated.

      Henry Hertz Hobbit

    5. Sarah Jessica Parker might be able to pull off early 30s, but I’m not sure Bacon could. And people would remember that they were both in the original playing the same age 😉

      I’ve been watching this fiasco play out for several weeks, and, like Dustin Resch above, having flashbacks to the Great Global Education Kerfuffle of ~1985. I was in high school when that one played out, and it’s downright creepy how much of the same language we’re hearing.

      Worst of all, to me, is the thought that Cory Babi is the face of Bennett in the eyes of the outside world. That one, too, is deja vu. She and her ilk were overwhelmingly outnumbered at the school board meeting by parents speaking in support of Ms. Waggoner, but it’s her preposterous assertion about her child suddenly asking about abortion — which can only be a cynical straight-out lie — that people will remember.

      Bennett is far from perfect — I’m the first to admit I couldn’t get away from it fast enough — but thankfully Mrs. Babi is in a fringe minority even there.

    6. I don’t live anywhere near Bennett & I do not have children. I do resent the hypocrisy of so called Christians. The town of Bennett should not let 6 people terrorize them. If those 6 do not like what their kids are learning, take them out of the school & homeschool them.
      I am almost tempted to drive to Bennett, park my car outside a church, & turn the car radio full volume to a classic rock station or AM 760.

      In all seriousness, is there any way that I can help Tresa?

    7. I cycle through this sleepy town every couple of weeks on my way from Denver, CO to Strasburg, CO. As soon as I get to Bennett, CO, I start singing the Alerte! Alerte! finale from Faust (assuming I’m not too winded). youtube.com/watch?v=rj6KDtLf98A

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