The Interdisciplinary Discipline

January 08, 2013

A scene from Verdi's

A scene from Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera"; Photo: Metropolitan Opera

When the fall semester ended so did one of the more surprisingly cross-disciplinary classes taught at Cooper Union.  "Opera," an examination of the history, materials and structures of the complex art form, has been offered three times by William Germano, Dean of the Faculty of the Humanities and Social Sciences. The class draws a broad spectrum of art, architecture, and engineering majors who come for different reasons.

"The class actually thrives on crossing disciplines because the operatic performance encompasses many different realms,“ Kris Steele, a fifth-year student from The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, says. Mark Tugman, another architecture school student, discusses opera in spatial and social terms.  “[The opera class] has opened my mind to the complex intertwined nature of social gathering, political climate and aesthetic form in a way I had not thought of before," he says. "Studying opera has provided me with a lens through which to consider the interactions of society, sound, myths and physical structures in a new light.”

What makes the class so broadly appealing?  “Opera is the multimedia experience before electronic art forms come in,” Germano says. “Work in the arts today is so heavily invested in multiple mediation, and this is one of the ways of historicizing that—but it’s also giving exposure to some amazing experiments in fusing the arts.”  Opera has been one of Dean Germano's passions since his days as a public high school student, when a sympathetic teacher started taking his entire Yonkers class to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Though Dean Germano formally pursued literature in his academic career rather than music, his interest in opera continued and matured over the years. The course he now offers at Cooper is an expression of that passion—and seems to inspire passion in his students, too.

Jenny Eagleton, a fourth-year student at the School of Art, has an artist's perspective. “Opera is complicated," she says, "Not only are we considering the things that happen on stage in a performance, but also we have been thinking about the spaces (opera houses, outdoor stages) where these things take place, the audience, lighting in the theatres (which wasn't extinguished until Wagner demanded total darkness!), language, and many other things.”

“Everybody brings something different to the class. For example many engineering students here have had some musical background," Germano says. One former Cooper engineering student, Thaddeus Strassberger (BSE’98) went on to successfully pursue a career as an international opera director and designer. Though he and Germano didn’t overlap at Cooper Union, Strassberger found his undergraduate experience instrumental to his professional ambitions.  “In many aspects, producing an opera really feels like a natural synthesis of Cooper Union’s motto of advancing science and art,” Strassberger wrote in an article for At Cooper in 2010.

The class makes at least one trip to the Metropolitan Opera, America's leading opera company, a short subway ride from Cooper. This year Dean Germano took the class to see a new production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera [A Masked Ball].

Dean Germano has a vision for his class that transcends learning how to write and talk intelligently about opera.  He makes a humanities class on a musical subject appeal to the artists, architects, and engineers at Cooper whose disciplines focus less on language and more on non-verbal expression. “Philosophically, thinking about opera is also a chance to talk about what language can’t do,” Germano says. “And that’s important for our students.”

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.