Study abroad students generally take on one of two roles. On one hand, they become cultural sponges, absorbing the language and life of their adopted city. On the other, some hold onto their home culture so obstinately they become essentially four-month tourists. Students at Syracuse University in Florence, however, have become involved in a another alternative. In conjunction with the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Meyer Children’s Hospital of Florence, Syracuse has created an opportunity for a mutual cultural enrichment through an ‘exhange of fairytales’.
Based around the story of Snow White, or Biancaneve, the project includes classroom visits, lectures on childhood development, community service, and it culminates with the realization of Snow White as an opera. Based on the telling by the brothers Grimm, both music and libretto are by Italian-American composer Luigi Zaninelli .
Syracuse students, led by professor Vittoria Tettamanti-Harley, have spearheaded an effort to bring ‘Operation: Do You Speak English?’ to local elementary schools. This aspect of the project, using the didactic approach developed by Tettamanti-Harley in conjunction with the volunteers, aims to encourage familiarity with the story for students in kindergarten through sixth grade via vocabulary exercises, storyboard images and active participation. Tettamanti-Harley began the project last year with a similar presentation of Maurice Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ based on a concept of cultural exchange championed by Syracuse faculty member Lisa Friend. In the words of Tettamanti-Harley, ‘The idea is that our students work together in order to leave something behind, not only to take from this experience but also to give something back’.
And give they do. Syracuse students, trained for nearly a month through workshops and practices, head to elementary schools around Florence bearing picture boards, flash cards and bags of props. Encouraged to speak only in English, despite their own study of Italian on campus, they review the key vocabulary of the story with the children and then read the tale two or three times. The first reading is for comprehension, but on subsequent readings student volunteers dress up as the key characters and act out parts of the story, such as the dwarves’ march home or the wicked queen’s sinister interactions with the heroine.
Groups bring one of two versions of the story to life: a tamer, Disney-style edition for younger children, and the appropriately grim Grimm tale – more mature in its content and vocabulary – for those in upper grades. Thus far, the schools’ response has exceeded the capacity of the 50 or so volunteers from Syracuse, and visits are even scheduled to continue through the college students’ spring break.
In addition to the classroom visits, Syracuse University will host a day-long conference on the role of fairytales in the development of young children within a multi-ethnic society. Scheduled for March 10, the conference invites teachers, students, psychologists and parents to a series of lectures. Among those involved are Barbara Fiese, a developmental psychologist from Syracuse’s home campus in New York, Anna Sarfatti, an author of children’s tales, and famed Italian psychiatrist Paolo Crepet.
The project also encourages Italian elementary schools and students to do their own good deeds. In a scheme appropriately named ‘A book for an apple’,schools and students are encouraged to donate a copy of their favorite fairytale to a local library. In return, each young donor will receive an apple and a literary surprise in English to encourage the cultural exchange. The project will continue through the end of the semester in April.
Perhaps the greatest undertaking of the project is the staging of eight performances of Snow White at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale. Six sold-out matinees are scheduled throughout the month of March for elementary school children, who will have been prepared for this contemporary, English-language version through the classroom visits. The remaining two performances, on the evenings of March 19 and 21, are for adults and families. The former will be a gala performance, the proceeds of which will go to the Meyer Children’s Hospital.
While Syracuse has called in professionals such as director Vivien Hewitt, scenographer and lighting specialist Alex Koziara and costumer Regina Schrecker to bring the work to life, students enrolled in the studio arts program have been assisting with sets and costumes for the production. The performance itself will feature eleven student actors who have been preparing during the last few months at Syracuse’s home campus as well as a corpus of singers from the Florentine campus.