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Katie: The Strongest of the Strong

Welcome to the opera!

Interactive lessons, along with worksheets, color pages, and an array of recommended videos are curated here inviting young people, families, and teachers into the world of opera. The information below can be used to help prepare students and families before (or after) watching HGO’s production Katie: The Strongest of the Strong by Faye Chaio and Anton Dudley. You will also find answers to some basic questions about opera.

Looking for a chance to meet an opera singer? Email us at find out how!

First things first:

a few definitions and overview of opera and the power of the operatic voice

At Houston Grand Opera (HGO) we like to say Opera is simply storytelling using words and music. Traditionally, all of the words are sung. However, some forms in the mid-late 19th century employed extended dialogue with comedy or satire and were called operettas. In the 21st century, exciting operas are written in many forms and styles drawing on current social trends and an increasing diverse global society.

Want to know more about how opera is made? Check out what the folks at VOX put together when the followed around the cast and crew of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Akhnaten by Phillip Glass.

You will immediately notice that opera singers, unlike their peers in pop music, do not use microphones. Rather, an opera singer trains their own body as a source of “natural” amplification. Watch this fun video of kids hearing an opera singer for the first time:

“Kids meet: an opera singer”

Through years of careful study and practice, singers learn to project sound and control the exhaling of breath. The process is simple, but difficult to master–by expanding the lower abdominal muscles while taking in air, the lungs fill. These low muscles then assist the singer in regulating the amount of air used in singing. This frees the neck and throat (where the vocal cords are) so the singer can produce a relaxed, full sound.

As the sound passes through the mouth it resonates in the sinus cavities of the face and head, which act as small echo chambers that help amplify the sound. The resulting sound is not only audible, but can be clearly perceived in the back rows of the orchestra and the top of the balcony.

Check out this video that breaks it down: “What’s a squillo, and why do opera singers need it? - Ming Luke” or get an “x ray” view into a singers head with this intriguing video:

There are a lot of words used in operas that aren’t used in many other places. Review the list below and then find all the words in the downloadable word search puzzle.

ACCOMPANIMENT The musical background provided for a principal part.

ARIA A musical piece for solo voice focusing on emotional expression.

BARITONE The middle range male voice.

BASS The lowest male voice.

CHORUS A group of singers who sing and act in a group.

COLORATURA Elaborate ornamentation of a vocal line; or a voice having the ability and agility to sing many notes quickly, usually in an extended range.

COMPOSER The person who writes the music.

CONDUCTOR The person who leads the singers and orchestra.

COSTUMES The clothes the performers wear to help tell the story.

DUET A musical piece for two performers.

ENSEMBLE Two or more singers singing and expressing their emotions at the same time.

FINALE The last musical number of an act or show. It usually involves most of the cast and often repeats musical themes from the show.

LIBRETTIST The person who writes the words of an opera.

LIBRETTO Literally “little book,” this is the text or words of an opera.

MEZZO-SOPRANO The middle female voice, usually darker and fuller than a soprano.

OPERA Storytelling using words and music. The synthesis of all art forms.

OVERTURE/PRELUDE Introductory orchestral music in an opera. In later opera, it set the theme or mood for the coming drama or comedy, containing musical material to be heard later in the work. In the early operas, it was simply used to quiet the audience.

PROPS Objects placed on the stage and used by the actors; an abbreviation of the word “properties.”

RECITATIVE Singing the text on speech-like tones, often used for dialogue.

SCORE The printed page upon which all the vocal and instrumental music of an opera is written.

SET The scenery used on the stage to show location.

SOPRANO The highest female voice.

STAGE DIRECTOR The person who decides how the singers will move on stage and how they will act while they are singing their parts

TENOR The highest male voice

Get to Know the Show

Based on the life of Austro-American weightlifter Katie (Brumbach) Sandwina, KATIE: THE STRONGEST OF THE STRONG is the charming and cheeky tale of Katie’s rise to fame, as she outlifts the strongest man in the world then joins the circus and eventually finds her place as an icon of the women’s suffrage movement.  Told through the eyes of journalist Marina Martin, a chorus of circus women take on a multitude of characters in this operatic adventure, showing us that strength and beauty come in all shapes and sizes.

Katie Sandwina

      • Character description: Strongwoman Katie Sandwina was a real life suffragette, record breaker and world traveler. An Austrian by birth, she moved to the United States where she claimed the title of the world's strongest person and toured with Barnum and Bailey Circus.
      • Character Question- What can you find out about the real Katie Sandwina? Where was she from, when did she live, what was her legacy?


      • Character Description: A young Journalist in the 1900’s who is writing a story about women of the future who have the right to vote. Marina loves the history of the suffrage movement and the impact it has had on our world today.
      • Character Question- Although Marina is a fictional character, she carries the traits of many modern-day journalists. Which journalists of today does Marina remind you of and why?

Bernice Barbelle

      • Character Description: As part of The Barbelles ,this incredible woman performs an amazing duet act with Bebe, as Strongman Sandow, and a trio as P.T Barnum. Don’t you dare blink or you might miss her transform from one person to another!
      • Character Question: Can you name other famous trios (groups of singers or musicians)?

Bebe Barbelle

      • Character Description: The second half of strongman Sandow and one third of P.T Barnum, Bebe molds herself from one character to another. She is the 3rd member of The Barbelles, a circus group who will bring to life multiple characters in the opera.
      • Character Question: What term is used in opera when a woman plays the character of a man?

Beryl Barbelle

      • Character Description: As a member of The Barbelles, Beryl travels back in time with Marina to help tell Katie’s story. Tricks up her sleeve include but are not limited to ventriloquism and puppeteering.
      • Character Question: Are there any shows you’ve seen where the actor has played more than what character? Why would the creative team think this is a good idea?

What is a Creative Team? The people who have the ideas that turn thoughts into what you see and hear on stage. In opera a composer, librettist, stage director, music director, and designers (costume, set, lights, hair/makeup) complete the Creative Team.

Faye Chiao, Composer

Faye Chiao is composer and performer of musical theater, opera, and concert music.  Chiao has been honored with The Presser Music Award from The Presser Foundation, the Libby Larsen Prize from the International Alliance for Women in Music, and grants from The Puffin Foundation and OPERA America.


Anton Dudley, Librettist  

Anton Dudley is a playwright, director, and librettist for both opera and musical theatre.  His body of works range from Off-Broadway productions to collegiate stages to opera houses.  Anton recently received an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for fiscal year 2020 for his play Song of the Wind. For more information on Anton visit his website:


Eboni Bell, Stage Director

Eboni Bell is a co-founder of the youth theatre Iconotheatrix and a Native Houstonian. Ms. Bell has directed several production in the Houston area including work on HGO’s recent premiere of Damien Sneed and Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton’s Marian’s Song. Learn more about Eboni’s work at  


Kirill Kuzmin, Music Director/Pianist

HGO Studio alumnus Kirill Kuzmin is currently an assistant conductor at Houston Grand Opera and a music staff member at The Glimmerglass Festival. Visit for more information and insight on his career.


Claire Hummel, Costume Designer


Austin Abernathy, set designer

Born Katharina Brumbach in 1884 Austria to circus performing parents, Katie Sandwina claimed the title of the world’s strongest women in the 20th century. Taking the name “Sandwina” after outlifting her competitor, strong man Eugene Sandow, in a public strength competition in which she was able to lift 300 lbs. over her head when her competitor was only able to lift the weight up to his chest.

After emigrating to the United States in the early 1900s she joined famous Barnum and Bailey Circus, gracing stages across the nation for nearly 60 years and dazzling crowds by showy feats of strength such as lifting her 165 lbs. husband above her head, bending metal bars, and resisting the pull of four horses.

In 1912 she became the vice-president of a Suffrage society within the Barnum and Bailey Circus, and helped give voice to the movement that forever changed the course of women’s rights in the United States.

Learn more about Katie and watch this 30 minute online film: The Rogue Legends Series: Sandwina Chapter 4

Discussion question: Who is a modern-day Katie?

Things to consider:

      • Katie didn’t let her physical strength and appearance negatively define her
      • Katie joined a nation-wide movement to stand up for equal rights
      • Katie’s career lasted over 60 years

A timeline of 100 years towards women's suffrage

Activities, lessons, and more

The following Motivational Student Activity was adapted from the Library of Congress resources page, click here for related lessons. 

Motivational Student Activity (10-15 minutes)

      1. Conduct a class vote for a class president for the day with only boys voting.
      2. Tally votes, but do not reveal results.
      3. Conduct a girls' vote.
      4. Reveal the winner, based on the boys' vote.
      5. Add the girls' vote to the boys' vote.
      6. Discuss results. Did the vote change by adding the female vote?
      7. Extension: ask students to use the National Center for Educational Statistics website to create bar graphs using the data collected from each group.

Advocate for something you believe in.

Step 1: understand the issues

Background on The Women’s Suffrage Movement:

The Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States called for political reform demanding that the right to vote must include women, but the movement was also a major step in tackling gender inequities across the board. Prior to the Movement, women had no voice in lawmaking, no independent rights after marriage, no custody of children after a divorce, no right to a college education, and little to no opportunities to enter most professions. The protestors looking to change these inequities took to non-violent protest tactics which were so successful that the suffrage movement became THE model for political change that nearly all 20th century reform movements- such as the Civil Rights movement followed. One tactic used were peaceful marches, in which protestors would chant, sing, and hold signs declaring their message as the marched through the streets.

Step 2: Think about how the issues matter to you

Connect the past to today:

      • Consider the inequalities women faced prior to the 19th Amendment ratification. Look at their protest signs found here:
      • What types of movements are happening today? What kinds of inequalities or injustices are currently being protested in the United States? Search for images of their protest signs. (ex. Global warming, #blacklivesmatter, #metoo)

Step 3 do something

Call to action:

Choose a cause which feels important to you and create a protest sign in the style of past movements. Follow the directions below to make your protest sign and post pictures to social media or school pages to make your voice heard.

Printed resources:


Explore more online resources/lessons:

      • National Museum of American History: The Suffragists’ Educators Guide for Classroom (videos, lesson plans, and activities)
      • Khan Academy The Nineteenth Amendment (brief overview of the suffrage movement and questions to start engaging conversations)
      • NEA- 19th Amendment (lesson plans, activities, background resources, and videos)
      • Voting Rights: Women’s Suffrage Movement (complete reading guide, comprehension worksheet, and activities for 4th grade students)

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