LearningLife Stories


Retelling the Story, Rewriting the Music

Rigoletto costumes

When Victor Hugo attempted to portray the King of France as the tormentor of his lessers, his play Le roi s'amuse ("The King Amuses Himself") was banned after a single performance. Giuseppe Verdi took the liberty of expanding the play's sole villain to be the oppressive Italian aristocracy in general, and his version enjoyed greater success. It wasn't canceled, at least.

This was Rigoletto, the first of three Verdi operas--with Il Trovatoreand La Traviata--written in the first half of the 1800s, all of which have narrative themes that have resonated with audiences ever since. By preserving a surprisingly literal adaptation of Hugo's tale, Verdi took bold strides away from the traditional opera format and broke new ground, a move that wasn't readily embraced at the time.

"It does conform to the standard scenario for a serious Italian opera . . . a tragic love story that ends with the death of one of the partners," notes musicologist Dr. Daniel Freeman, who teaches music history at the University and the Smithsonian Institution. Usually, the lead characters are doomed lovers thwarted by external circumstances, but in Rigoletto, "the Duke of Mantua has no intention of marrying his lover, the young Gilda, or spending the rest of his life with her in any arrangement." And more than that, the story denies its audience a satisfying climax of revenge: "indeed, the earliest critics condemned it for portraying the Duke of Mantua as an immoral person who is never punished for his misdeeds."

As if this weren't enough, Verdi explored new frontiers in performance. His trio of operas "may be said to be the culmination of the bel canto period of Italian opera," Freeman says, yet at the same time, "Verdi moved away from the rigid sectional structures and the extravagant vocal display of the bel canto period to produce works that more closely conformed to an ideal of the seamless unfolding of the dramatic situations in a spoken play."

Join us for this spellbinding study of Rigoletto (begins March 21) – the legacy of its composer's wild vision, and the aspiration of a story for the ages.

Offered in cooperation with the Minnesota Opera.

Course Details


Wednesdays, March 21 through 28, 6:30−8:30 p.m., $95

Daniel Freeman, PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has taught courses in music history at the University of Minnesota and the Smithsonian Institution. Considered the world’s leading historian in the field of 18th-century Czech music, Freeman is also a musicologist and pianist. His most recent book is Mozart in Prague (Bearclaw Publishers, 2013).

The Neurobiology of Aging

The Aging Brain

Consider the number of times you encountered stories about Alzheimer's disease or dementia in the past few years. Now consider how many people you know who are caring for aging family members in a state of severe cognitive decline, and you'll understand why brain health seems to be on everyone's mind. (Yes, intended.)

As the population ages physically, our brains undergo a natural process of aging. What changes can we expect to occur as our brains age? What steps can we take to prevent normal aging from transitioning into disease states, such as Alzheimer's or dementia? 

The advice can be confusing. Neuroscience researchers are constantly updating their information and releasing revelations on the best and latest information to the public. But what happens when those messages don't come across or are not interpreted as intended?

"It's difficult for scientists to communicate with the public and vice versa," says Julia Gamache, a PhD candidate in the University of Minnesota's Graduate Program in Neuroscience. "A certain amount of simplification is necessary for a layperson to understand a scientific finding, but problems arise when scientific language gets oversimplified." 

Gamache intends to help circumvent this miscommunication as part of her three-session course The Neurobiology of Aging (begins March 12), when she will teach participants how to assess neuroscience research data critically, and interpret that data as it is reported in the media.

"By going through a research and news article side-by-side," she suggests, "participants will get a better feel for how the scientific method works, how data gets translated into scientific conclusions, and how those conclusions get translated into news stories."

Offered in cooperation with the Department of Neuroscience and in recognition of Brain Awareness Week, the three-session course will begin with an overview of the fundamental topics in neurobiology before moving on to discuss how to improve cognitive function and maintain brain health as this vital organ ages.

Gamache says, "We will talk about how diet, physical exercise, and mental exercise can be used to maintain a healthy brain. Participants in this course will see some scientific evidence that these approaches work, and will also learn how these tips are grounded in principles of neurobiology, like synaptic plasticity and proteins called growth factors."

Course Details

The Neurobiology of Aging

Mondays, March 12 through 26, 6:00−8:00 p.m., $135

Julia Gamache, BA, Magna Cum Laude, biology and cognitive science, Carleton College, is a PhD candidate in the University of Minnesota’s Graduate Program in Neuroscience. A recipient of a 3M Science and Technology Fellowship, Gamache’s research focuses on how toxic proteins kill brain cells in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Frontotemporal Dementia.

Offered in cooperation with the Department of Neuroscience in recognition of Brain Awareness Week (BAW). A project of the Dana Foundation, BAW (March 12−18) is the global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research. In 2017, BAW partners hosted 800 events in 43 countries and 40 states.

Model Student: Maggie Skoy

Maggie Skoy

Some people have a passion for learning: Maggie Skoy has a passion for LearningLife.

Maggie has been attending LearningLife courses for more than two years, and her enthusiasm for the program's courses continues to grow. It started when a neighbor passed along a LearningLife catalog to Maggie's sister. Leafing through it, Maggie came across a course taught by professor emerita Toni McNaron, who'd made a significant impression on Maggie during her English major coursework. She says: "I could not believe my good luck in reconnecting with this wise, courageous, humorous, and articulate scholar. . . It has been and is a great pleasure to be in discussions with the instructors and students who come from all different walks of life and experience. Because of these outstanding scholars, scientists, and students, there is always a vibrancy that is palpable in each and every class."

Now a retired nurse, Maggie satiates her curiosity about the world through LearningLife courses. She's also spreading her LearningLife enthusiasm by distributing catalogs to her friends and family, as well as to those at her health clubs! (Yes. That's health clubs, plural. Active body, active mind!)

What does she love so much about the program? "LearningLife offers opportunities to engage with our own renowned University of Minnesota scholars, researchers, and scientists," she asserts. "It offers the opportunity to be with and become friends with students who possess a desire to learn. It offers an individual an opportunity to be enlightened on a given subject. Finally, it offers the opportunity to feel, once again, the excitement that one felt as a young college student. Invaluable!"

"We have one precious life," she says. "Living well, to me, means staying engaged and excited about life and continuing to learn what it is to be a human being in this wild, frustrating, but wonderful world."

Of course, LearningLife is grateful for all of its students, and we're excited about what we do. Please join us—and, in all likelihood, Maggie—for another deliciously thought-provoking year!