When Math Meets Opera


Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago, an email arrived in my inbox from the venerable Alan Cline, one of the campus’ renowned computer science professors. The subject line read, “An experiment in pre-class opera,” and in the body was the forwarded correspondence between Cline and his colleague Bob Duke. Cline had emailed around a version of the essay that follows detailing how he had tried something different last semester with a math class. When Duke read it, he suggested Cline send it to the Alcalde, which is how it made it to me. We bring this to you now because we thought it a brave and fascinating experiment from a UT professor who, like so many others, cares about being as good a teacher as he is a researcher. For me, it brought back memories of my days in the classroom; I hope it does the same for you.—Tim Taliaferro, Editor-in-Chief

What typically happens in those minutes prior to the beginning of a lecture? In 40 years of university teaching, I have found it is what I call “idle chit-chat,” although the word “idle” is not meant to disparage. I think having the students get to know one another—perhaps discuss the material, perhaps agree to form study groups, perhaps just get more comfortable with the university experience—can actually be quite productive. Nevertheless, suppose that a lecturer is confronted with total silence?

Such was my case in the 2014 fall semester of a sophomore-level mathematics class for computer-science majors. There was simply pre-class silence. I warned the students: “If you do not engage in idle chit-chat, I will force you to listen to something I choose to fill the time.” On the second warning I was more explicit: “… and it will be opera.”

Still silence; so the next class was preceded by the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’ Lakme. I thought it was something so sweet that it would get their attention and they might say, “This could be OK.” We were blessed by the fact that there was no class using the lecture room prior to us and thus it was easy for me to set up the opera presentations as well as the mathematics lectures to follow. I was very careful to start the opera early enough each class so that the lectures actually began at the appointed times. I also made it clear to the students that attendance for the opera was totally optional.

Similar to the Lakmé “Flower Duet,” I selected the next three pieces just to get them hooked: the male duet from The Pearl Fishers, “Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s Rusalka, and “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot.

The only indication I had of interest was student attendance. It seemed that very few students were arriving in the midst of the opera or right before class. That indicated interest, but I wanted something more precise. I decided to do an anonymous poll. Here is what I presented:

Should there be opera prior to the start of our class?

  • Yes, I came to the university seeking to broaden myself and I find a few minutes of opera an enriching part of my day.
  • No, throughout my entire life I have sought to convince people that I was raised in a barn. I would prefer to listen to fingernails scraped on the blackboard than that noise. Please turn it off and allow us to engage in mindless chit-chat about our favorite reality shows.

A political reporter friend has described this as a “push poll,” meaning that the questions were phrased to elicit particular answers. Yes, I had a bit of fun with that, but, knowing my students, I doubt that this had much effect on anyone’s vote. Out of a class of 80, there were 47 responses and only two students voted no. I was quite surprised and pleased. I ought to do a follow- up poll, but my students have too much on their minds at this moment to get their attention.

Generally, the video opera segments were less than five minutes; I deliberately chose fairly short segments. (The last two were longer.) If I was able, I chose videos from an opera production (rather than a concert) with English subtitles. I also hoped for high-quality audio and video, but simply had to compromise on some of my desires on occasion. The presentation began with the video, although I had written the name of the composer, opera, and piece on the board. Following the video, I would discuss the story of the opera and how our piece fit into the whole. I also had short opportunities to discuss a few opera concepts such as coloratura, recitative, vocal range, harmonic suspension, acting, modern dress, and dance. The final two presentations—the “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde and the “Triumphal March” from Aida—took about 10 and 15 minutes respectively, and I was amazed at the number of students who came early to listen.

Were I to do this again, I would try to select some more modern operas. I might even get into borderline opera: I cannot understand why The Magic Flute is opera, yet Evita is not (or is only “rock opera”) except that the Metropolitan Opera performs the first but not the second. As it was, Porgy and Bess was the only 20th-century offering. I stayed pretty close to the old war horses of the operatic world.

Was this a success? I saw it as a huge a success and one that I did not predict. I imagined I would do a few of these and the students would return to chatting and that would be a signal that the interest in opera had waned. That never happened. I view the university experience as being potentially the most enriching four years of my students’ lives. There should be so much more to attending a university then what is found in lectures and textbooks. This was my way of expanding my students’ cultivation. I will consider it a success if, years from now, when a former student is thinking about dominant eigenvectors and their relation to Google’s PageRank algorithm, the student says “Yes, I remember that. It was the day we saw the horses on stage for Aida.”

Alan Kaylor Cline is a professor in UT’s departments of computer science and mathematics.

Illustration by Melissa Reese


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