The Afterlife Opera; Home-schoolers Meet Curia

Exploring Heaven, Purgatory and Hell

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, JAN. 14, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Preparations are under way for the staging of a new musical based on Dante's epic exploration of heaven, hell and purgatory.

The Divine Comedy Opera is the project of Monsignor Marco Frisina, director of the Liturgical Office for the Vicariate of Rome.

During my visit to his office, the monsignor revealed that although his experience as a composer has taken him on a variety of adventures -- from working on projects commissioned by Pope John Paul II to writing film soundtracks -- this project has proved one of the most daunting.

"I'd considered doing it for a while but had never felt enough courage to deal with the grand literary text," he said. "It was Pope Benedict XVI who gave me the necessary key."

Monsignor Frisina said he was inspired by the reference to Dante in Benedict XVI's encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est," and the Pope's discussion of the human search for the love of God.

"It's love with a capital 'L,'" said the 52-year-old priest. "The Holy Father's words underlined for me the importance of presenting this spiritual journey and demonstrated how this medieval text is so applicable to our contemporary world."

With the assistance of literary and theological experts, Monsignor Frisina adapted the classic lyrics to music, often as indicated by the manuscript itself.

"I merely interpreted Dante's selection of musical styles according to his descriptions of each part of the afterlife," said the monsignor.

"Dante suggests the music to use as he speaks considerably about song," he said. "For instance, as he discusses the harmonious sounds of heaven, I use a more classical polyphony to represent this harmony of God and the Universe … even each persona has their own musical representation."

So, while heaven will be full of classical style melodies, the limbo of purgatory will be illustrated with Gregorian Chant, with hell full of more jarring music such as rock, punk and rave.

This choirmaster of the Basilica of St. John Lateran explained: "Rock here seemed appropriate as it's able to express profound rebellion and could best characterize the violence of hell."

The dance routines are also inspired by Dante's descriptions, and elaborate sets will be enhanced by dozens of images projected on screens "expressing the visions and virtual world."

Special effects will include the fire of the devil's den which will spill off the stage to seemingly engulf the audience.

Monsignor Frisina added that "the work is artistic adventure involving many artists and will include around 200 performers and musicians, six projectors and a huge stage."

He says he's overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and interest he's received already by world media as well as from his production company.

The initiative has already obtained the patronage of the Italian Senate and Chamber of Deputies as well as of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

"I have a dream," the prelate explained, "that all people may have a desire for heaven and for God. I pray this musical production exploring the ups and downs of the soul of man in the universal language of music helps them to do this."

Rehearsals will begin this month, and organizers plan on hosting the premiere in November.

Money earned from the opera will be donated for the construction of new churches in the Eternal City.

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Bringing School Home

Three representatives of the Seton Catholic Home Studies School were in Rome to present to members of the Roman Curia the home schooling program which provides original course material for all grade levels, standardized testing and 24-hour academic help lines.

Mary Kay Clark, director of the program, told me that what began in 1975 with fewer than 100 children, has grown into an international phenomenon with 11,000 students regularly enrolled, while servicing another 17,000 each year who utilize the materials produced by Seton.

"We grew by leaps and bounds," said this home schooling mother of seven, and grandmother of 30.

One of the main attractions to the Seton program is the fact that the pace of the lesson can be adjusted for the individual.

According to Clark, "children also tend to be able to focus a lot better as each person learns with a different capability and at varying levels, so that a child in sixth grade who is stronger or weaker in a subject can be directly catered to with a suitable adjustment in curriculum."

Critics of home schooling say that while home-schooled children may be learning more in less time, they fall behind in social skills.

Virginia Seuffert, who home-schooled her 12 children, says that actually the children have more time and energy for after-school activities such as sports, dance or music lessons. In this environment they are able to interact with other children and make friends.

Additionally, Seuffert pointed out that the children taught at home do interact with other children, their brothers and sisters.

Catherine Moran, president of the Catholic Home School Network of America, says that another positive point is that the parents have more control over the influences surrounding their children. "Unfortunately often in our modern Western cultures, children are forced to grow up too soon. They're exposed to influences at a very early age," she said.

The Seton program is also specifically Catholic encouraging a greater spiritual dimension to learning. According to Clark, in each of the over 100 text books produced by the Seton group, there is a Catholic reference.

"Take our English books for example -- if we are working on phrasing or vocabulary we might talk about a sacrament. If there is a history project, we might go back to medieval times and discover St. Joan of Arc.... Science, on the other hand, will obviously take things from a Catholic bioethical perspective," she said.

And for those parents who are concerned as to whether they're up to the academic task to respond to the needs of their children, these experts have an answer.

While both Clark and Moran have their PhD's, Seuffert is proof that the academic past of a parent should not be a limitation.

"I have a high-school diploma," she said, "but the Seton format is mom and dad-friendly, providing us with great materials and on-line counselling … we even learn with the children. It's very rewarding for the whole family."

These parents support their work with a quote from Pope John Paul II in his letter to families: "Parents are the first and most important educators of their own children and they also posses a fundamental competence in this area; they are the educators because they are parents."

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at catherine@zenit.org.