Manon Goes Modern
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? The discussion offers an opportunity to apply the notes on students’ My Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about the visual design of the Met production—in short, to see themselves as Manon Lescaut experts.
At some point in the discussion, if none of your students bring it up, introduce the topic of relationships between men and women in the opera. It might make sense to review several examples and ask which of these, if any, could happen today:
Lescaut decides to dump his sister in a convent.
He talks freely about this with Geronte.
When Geronte expresses interest in Manon, Lescaut sees an opportunity for his own advancement.
Geronte plans to kidnap Manon.
Geronte expects that, if he kidnaps her, there will be no search party or punishment.
The innkeeper freely helps Geronte.
When des Grieux hears of the plot, he decides to fake a kidnapping of his own.
Manon leaves des Grieux to move in with the wealthy Geronte.
When Manon decides to leave Geronte and take the jewels he’s given her, she’s arrested and imprisoned.
Her punishment is exile.
It’s likely that your students will say at least some of these could never happen today. Why not? What might happen instead? Which of Manon’s actions would be considered socially acceptable today? Unacceptable? How would society behave toward her? What would their respective expectations be?
Puccini based this opera on a novel written 160 years earlier. It’s interesting to consider that we’re closer to the opera than he was to the novel: We’re less than 120 years from the premiere of Manon Lescaut. With that in mind, your students may enjoy creating their own “Manon for the 21st Century.”
Where would she grow up?
Where would she move to?
What would be her initial predicament?
Who would be the “des Grieux,” “Geronte,” and “Lescaut” in her life? How would a woman with Manon’s strengths and weaknesses get by in our time, in our world?
With what contemporary tragedy would her story end?
In other words, how could you retell Manon’s story for, say, modern teenagers? Would you write a play? A story? A video script? A graphic novel or manga? An opera? Then do it!
As appropriate for your teaching situation, students can work either singly or in teams to create their “modern Manons,” doing the project either in class or for homework. If it’s practical in your classroom, students will probably enjoy sharing and comparing the stories they devise.