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Ted's teaching tips

This stunning theatrical setting of Death reading the book of life raises questions about the arts and opera. You can start by asking what on earth the class thinks this is. Any discussion on death must be handled sensitively, as some children may have experienced bereavement, or feel afraid.

Opera What exactly is an opera (a play set to music, where all or most of the words are sung)? Do you know the names of any opera writers (Verdi, Puccini, Mozart)? Any opera singers (Pavarotti)? Any arias ("Your tiny hand is frozen", or "Nessun dorma" (none shall sleep), once used as a football anthem? Who was Giuseppe Verdi ("Joe Green" in translation) and what did he do (famous 19th century Italian opera writer , composer of Aida, Il trovatore, La traviata, Un ballo in maschera - set shown in picture)? Play one or two well-known pieces of opera to the class.

The arts What do we mean by "the arts" (forms of expression such as music, theatre, dance, paintings and sculpture, poetry and novels)? What is "high culture" (opera, theatre, which are thought to be the most sublime, lasting and complex forms of artistic expression, though some may appeal to a minority), "pop culture" (the sort of music, dance, visual art that attracts mass participation and audiences)? What part do they play in our lives (most people enjoy some kind of music, art, writing, or dancng)?

Death Who is the grim skeletal figure on the right (Death)? Death is the end of life, the one certainty, so why are people afraid of it (uncertainty about after-life, strong natural drive to survive)? How is death portrayed in the arts (a skeleton, often with a scythe, the "grim reaper"; slow sad minor chords in music)? What different views of the after-life do individuals and groups hold (another incarnation; heaven and hell; Indian notion of nirvana)?

Writing Write an imaginary conversation between the figure of Death and the living figures on the book of life; or write a short story in which someone narrowly escapes death.

TALKING POINTS

This looks an expensive set, so should "high" culture be subsidised?

For Opera, Shakespeare plays, art galleries may appeal to a minority, but they are our heritage, the highest forms of culture. Society should pay for them, as we all benefit. Without grants many theatres would close. Only the wealthy would be able to afford expensive tickets.

Against Why should the poor pay for the pleasures of the rich? Nobody subsidises football tickets. Subsidies produce unnecessarily lavish sets and costumes and overpaid stars on inflated salaries. Only the poor and the young should be offered cheap or free tickets.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter

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