I recently reread Rich Brown’s wonderful article, “The Dreaded Opera Category for $200 Please, Alex,” on his blog, Good Music Speaks, in which he explains why skeptics should take the time to experience this art form.
It reminded me of my own introduction to opera.
Mind you, I grew up in the 1950s with a steady diet of cartoons with classical and often operatic soundtracks. (For example, Elmer Fudd hunting Bugs Bunny while singing “Kill the wabbit” to the tune of Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.”) I’m not talking about that, but certainly it’s a way to familiarize the masses with the great musical themes. (When I was still teaching elementary music, during listening lessons about various composers, my students would perk up and say, “Oh, that’s from Little Ensteins.”)
When I was in high school, the Metropolitan Opera in New York sponsored school visits. I didn’t take advantage of the yearly field trips until my senior year, when I saw Verdi’s La Traviata. I went with a purely intellectual motivation—I would be a voice major at Duquesne University in the fall, and I should experience an opera. I didn’t expect to be charmed and delighted by the performance. Pure magic! Once you surrender yourself to the music, you’re not the least bit dismayed at the improbability of actors performing dialogue by singing. It helps to know the storyline (usually printed in the program), but the music and the action will convey the emotion, even if it’s being performed in a foreign language.
I transferred to Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) for my junior and senior years, and enrolled in Opera Workshop. I performed in the chorus for Mennoti’s Amahl and the Night Visitor, and Puccini’s Suor Angelica at the college, and in the chorus for Verdi’s Otello with the New Jersey State Opera.
When I was a young general music teacher in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, a middle school band director and a reading specialist and I used to take forays together to see the New York City Opera and have dinner at La Crepe or the Steak and Brew. (Rich, it was with them that I first saw La bohème.) Good times.
In 2014, my last year of teaching, I had a fabulous opportunity to introduce students to opera. We had a yearly tradition of taking the sixth graders to a performance by the Phoenix Youth Symphony. That year, conductor Keitaro Harada planned a concert of excerpts from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. In preparation for our field trip, the students learned the story of the opera, and watched YouTube videos of the selected music from various productions of the opera. For almost all of the students, this was their very first taste of opera, and their very first concert not at school. Eleven- and twelve-year-olds can be very resistant to trying something they perceive as uncool, but many expressed positive reactions afterward.
I continue to go to the opera, though not so frequently as in my college and early adult years.
So, what about you? Do you like opera? Do you perform opera? Do you write opera? Share in the comments below.