To start with, I know that this story is old news now, but it still gives me the happy giggles. It’s so refreshing to hear about a mother, father, or friend that takes a child to their first opera and a young fan is born. In case of this story, a mother took her nine year old daughter to see a family presentation of Carmen. When she enjoyed it, her mother took her back to see “Rigoletto” at the San Francisco opera, and even though “Rigoletto” deals with some pretty adult themes, as do many operas, the child was hooked.
Not only do these stories give us hope, as a generation of opera fans always ready initiate another into our cult group of enthusiastic opera lovers, but they make us excited! This art form isn’t even close to dead. Opera just needs revising. Suppose you write an essay: You read through the essay after you are finished. You notice a few spelling errors, and some incorrect grammar. Now, don’t tell me you burn your essay and proclaim “It’s dead.” You go back, revise, edit and perfect your piece. By the end, you have a great essay you worked hard to create. THIS is what opera is. Below, I have devised ten suggestions for making that first exposure of someone under eighteen to opera a successful and enjoyable one that will inspire a new opera lover. The tips are in no particular order.
1. Keep said child away from stereotypes of opera.
For a long time, opera has been a punching bag and the butt of many a joke about the theater. Recently, through the media, opera has been taken to a new level of disrespect. The stereotype that opera is just a fat woman with a horned helmet is nowhere close to true anymore. “It ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings”? Really? How much of this are kids picking up, and where is it coming from? Keep little Benny, Joey, Suzie, or whatever the name may be, away from these stereotypes! It will pay off in the long run and make sure that they don’t form and opinions before they are fully exposed.
2. Make opera a part of their life.
How hard is it to point out that in the commercial that they might be watching there is some opera. In the case of the Pepsi ad below, you might say “One of the songs they are singing is from a famous opera called Pagliacci.” Why not keep the classical station preset in the car?
It’s better to plant the seed of curiosity earlier!
3. Listen to opera yourself!
Make opera a part of your life the way you would like to make it a part of (Insert child’s name here)’s life. If you act as a role model and share this passion with other people, some of them are bound to be interested. It’s so important to show kids this music if you want it to stick with them for life.
4. Tailor opera to their interests.
Suppose (Insert child’s name here) is really passionate about Greek Mythology. One of the great things about opera is the variety across the canon. If (Insert Child’s Name Here) loves Greek myths, take them to “Orfeo ed Euridice”(Gluck) of “Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria”(Montiverdi), or maybe even “Les Troyens”(Berlioz) if they can sit still for five hours. Suppose (Insert Other Child’s Name Here) is really into Shakespeare and the Renaissance. Why not take them to “Macbeth”(Verdi) or “Otello”(Verdi), and let them separate the opera from the play that way? Make it accessible for them. There’s an interest in the plot and characters right off the bat. Then, let the music speak for itself.
5. Subject matter should not be a deciding factor.
So many people worry that they have to take their child to an “appropriate” first opera. This is not as big issue as you might think. So you think that Tosca is too violent for (Insert Child’s Name Here)? By age 18, a U.S. youth will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence on television. (American Psychiatric Association). Back when most standard repertoire operas were written most partially scandalized audiences at the time, making them controversial. This means, that operas were written with as much “suggestion” as possible. Audiences of the time were supposed to be able to piece together what had happened, through the music, the libretto and the text the opera derived from, if that applies, without it having to be out rightly stated onstage. And with everything that operas of 100 years+ “suggest”, it’s not as big an issue because it’s done in as non-offensive a way as possible for the uber conservative audiences of the time. Take for example in Mascagni’s opera “Cavalleria Rusticana”(One of the quintessential “verismo”(real) operas of all time and my first), Santuzza, a village woman tells Mamma Lucia, her former lover Turridu’s mother in her famous aria ‘Voi Lo Sapete’:
You know, mamma, that
Before he went off to be a soldier
Turiddu swore to Lola
To be eternally faithful
He returned to find her married;
And with a new love
He wanted to extinguish the flame
That burnt in his heart:
He loved me, I loved him.
She, envious of my happiness,
Forgotten by her husband,
Burning with jealousy,
She stole him from me.
I am left, dishonored:
Lola and Turiddu love each other,
And I weep!
At no point in this aria does it mention the core of the story: Turridu and Lola were in love, but when Turridu went off to war, Lola married in his absence. When he got back, out of anger he seduced Santuzza, then, Lola came back, Turridu abandoned Santuzza, and started a lengthy affair with a married Lola. Some productions of this opera have gone as far as to insinuate that Santuzza is pregnant with Turridu’s child, and that is why she may be “dishonored”. Santuzza has lived a miserable existence watching the man she loves betray her with another woman, yet we don’t see so much of that in the words. The music implies some, but it’s the job of the synopsis to break the story down to the meat of the story; the grisly details of a violent and unrequited love.
Of course, it’s all up to the family and many people might feel differently than me here. Of course in some operas over others there are overt themes that you may not want to expose a young person to, and that’s your choice. But get a feel of an opera yourself, before ruling it out of the first trip.
However, it might be a wise idea to look into the nature of the production of an opera you’re seeing. Especially when traveling abroad, make sure that new takes on a story and concepts display the values you want or don’t want your child to be exposed to.
6. Avoid Family Productions.
As helpful as a “family presentation” may be for an incoming opera buff, avoid it. I’m not saying that “family productions” don’t work or turn people off to opera, but certain aspects of a “Family Production” give opera a distorted reality. If you choose to start someone at “Hansel und Gretel”, more power to you. However, “Hansel und Gretel” can quickly become “Hansel and Gretel”. A translation of the libretto is changing the written word. There is no perfect translation of anything. If you cut the music, you remove valuable notes the composer meant to be there.
Now I’m also not saying that family presentations are bad or poorly conceived by any means. They are just not a good way to start someone on opera. If the child decides to go back to the opera, it might be a bit of a culture shock for them to automatically go from an hour and a half of English translation to three in another language.
Take for example the Met’s recent translation of “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”. The overture, a seven minute masterpiece, was slashed into two minutes. Not only is this not Rossini’s original intention, but it’s also not the real overture anymore. Alos, thee are some operas that are really great for a family audience as it. Like “Cenerentola” or “La Fanciulla del West”.
If given the choice, always take the “Carmen” or the “Rigoletto” over the family “edited” “Magic Flute”. It’s more “real”. Give (Insert Child’s Name Here) an authentic first opera experience.
7. Mum is the word about supertitles and translations.
When I went to my first opera, I think the most helpful thing for me was that I went in there not knowing if there would be translations or supertitles of any sort. I went expecting the music to tell me the story after having read the synopsis a few times. When I got there (To the Met.), the translations felt like just a perk.
Don’t mention the supertitles to the child you are taking to the opera and even further, insure them that the music will speak for itself. This might sound a little convoluted, but I swear that I am better off this way.
If they do ask, there’s not harm in telling them that there might be some guidance.
8. Prepare them!
Have (Insert Child’s Name Here) read the synopsis and listen to some of the music. It’s so important for them to be prepared, but to enter the opera house like a blank slate. Make sure they know what they are seeing, but don’t instill bias in them. See below.
9. Let them form their own opinions.
As far as you’re concerned, Maria Callas didn’t sing Violetta better than the person you saw singing it tonight in the production you took your niece/nephew/brother/sister/child/grandchild to. Let (Insert Child’s Name Here) decide what they thought of the singing, acting, and directing. It’s perfectly alright to teach them about what good technique is and other aspects that can create a successful performance, but if you never let them form their own opinions, they will fit into a cookie cutter mold unable to express their own opinions. When this happens, it’s a lot harder for them to define what type of style or repertoire or singers they like as opposed to the one’s they’re supposed to like. This is a topic that has been discussed by many an opera fan and singer, but we need to stop comparing singers. I wrote a bit about this two years ago as one of my first posts, and frankly, it’s not alright. You can talk all about how Sutherland could float a note in “Lucia di Lammermoor” that Netrebko has trouble with, but to say that “Sutherland Owns Lucia” is just not alright. Don’t let your opinions impact a budding opera fan.
Unless you’re talking about popera. Then bash away.
10. It’s alright to expect a lot from a young person.
In a recent episode of the “OperaNow!” Podcast, they discussed the first of the series of Met predictions that I wrote at the beginning of the season. It was an honor to have my story covered, and while they were discussing my story, they circled back to the story I talked about above about the mother who took her daughter to the opera. Co-host Oliver Camacho(Founder of The Opera Company) very nicely said about young people and opera that “You can bring somebody who is adolescent to the opera and expect a lot from them. Expect the music to speak for itself.” Opera is a spectacle, and a complete art form. If the music doesn’t enthrall (Insert Child’s Name Here), than the costumes, or the sets, or the sheer grandeur of the evening at the opera certainly will.Don’t rule out opera as an acceptable family art form because a child “won’t understand it”.
Don’t worry that an opera is 2 ½ hours. It’s not a priority. Who knows? They might love it.