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.