Written by Alexandra Wade
Valley High School orchestra directors Phil Peters and Michele Senger found fresh inspiration this summer, as they took part in a three-week program through the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). They were both selected as NEH Summer Scholars from a national applicant pool to attend “Mozart’s Worlds: The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.” It was hosted in Vienna, Austria, Mozart’s home for the last ten years of his life.
The interdisciplinary Institute focused on the two operas, but also enriched them with context: Vienna’s history and its culture at the time. The course was taught by multiple instructors from Vienna and the U.S. There were 25 students enrolled in the course, and they represented a wide variety of backgrounds and interests, from music to history and languages.
“One of the things I really liked about the class we took was the variety of disciplines represented,” Senger said. “There was a lot of wealth in that diverse of a group.”
Classes were held every morning from 9 a.m. to noon, with afternoons, evenings and weekends free for exploring the city and its history. There were planned activities and field trips with relevance to the course, like a trip to Mozarthaus, the apartment where Mozart lived with his family from 1784 to 1787. Peters and Senger also participated in architecture tours and group dinners with their instructors and fellow students. They visited every museum they could find in their free time, from institutions honoring music and art to a museum dedicated to Sigmund Freud, famed psychoanalyst and another of Vienna’s well-known historical residents. Through taking public transportation and their sightseeing, Peters and Senger soon became familiar with Vienna, even commenting that it was somewhere they would feel comfortable living.
Peters had first heard of the NEH Summer Scholars program from other Valley High School teachers who had enjoyed various courses through NEH. He felt the class was informative and enjoyable, but also offered him a fresh start to music.
“This was a way of reigniting the passion I had for music at the beginning of my career. I was glad to find that again,” said Peters, who has been teaching for 29 years.
Both instructors have brought the information and enthusiasm the course sparked in them back to the community. The last part of the program was to come up with curriculum projects, due at the end of December. Senger and Peters have already begun deciding what they want to focus on. Senger is arranging four arias each from Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro for string ensembles, using the harmoniemusik of the time as a model. Harmoniemusik was the popular music of the era, and often consisted of arrangements of music from operas, symphonies and ballets. Wind ensembles would perform the arrangements at balls and other events as entertainment.
Peters is hoping to work with a guest instructor at Drake University on a production of The Marriage of Figaro. He would help supplement the university orchestra with students from Valley High School, assist with the production and act as a guest conductor when needed. He is still waiting for Drake University’s approval for the project.
Both Senger and Peters praised the class and NEH program as a great opportunity for educators to continue learning themselves. Whether it is through newly-arranged music, an opera production or a rediscovered passion for music and teaching, Peters and Senger will use what they learned in Vienna to keep growing music education at Valley High School and in the community.