Back to fun opera for a Sunday (which is outside Lent… just wait til we get to Easter!)
I saw this article recently about bringing opera to kids in England, and there’s a lot in there that I agree with.
The danger is that the whole business of opera in schools gets swaddled up in sanctimonious evangelizing and patronising waffle that leaves the impression that opera is musical cod liver oil – something which does you good even though it doesn’t taste nice at the time, something people ought to like and that if you don’t, you are in some sense falling short. This is one point at which that tiresome shibboleth about opera being “elitist” kicks in.
Let’s be clear about this. Opera is not medicine: it isn’t good for you, or bad for you. It’s a form of entertainment, to which nobody is under any obligation to sign up, and if you don’t like it, fine. I played football at school and once went to a Premier League match: I didn’t enjoy it at all. End of story.
But of course, there is something to be said for giving children the opportunity to decide for themselves whether opera is something that intrigues them. Radio, television and the dominant musical culture isn’t going to give them that any more – certainly not in the way that it did 30 years ago, when BBC Two broadcast a Ring cycle from Bayreuth over 10 Sundays in prime time – and that is where a scheme like English National Opera’s Opera Squad comes in.
Opera Squad consists of a group of young singers and a section of ENO’s orchestra spending a day at a “challenged” comprehensive school in the Greater London area. Led by a compère or animateur, they take over the hall or gym to present a 40-minute introduction to opera – focused on one work – in a series of sessions, each tailored to the general intellectual level of each student Year. The atmosphere is informal, with plenty of time for questions and a degree of participation. Later the students will visit the Coliseum, touring the theatre and watching an entire dress rehearsal.
Now the author of the piece has some issue with how opera is presented to children, but I will say that one reason the ENO is well-suited for this endeavor is that they do opera only in English
The company has aimed to present the standard operatic repertoire, sung in English, and has staged all the major operas of Mozart, Wagner and Puccini, and a wide range of Verdi’s operas. Under Mackerras and his successors the Czech repertoire has featured strongly, and a broad range of French and Russian operas has been presented.81 The company has for decades laid stress on opera as drama, and has avoided operas where vocal display takes precedence over musical and dramatic content.81 In addition to the operatic staples, ENO has a history of presenting new works, and latterly of commissioning them.
Once upon a time, I would have taken issue with this (like, say, a half a year ago), but when I recently learned there was a period in the Met Opera’s history when they did nothing but German opera, and that includes German versions of Italian operas…. yeah, I am not about to get bitchy about English, which is nowhere as ugly as German (okay, at worst, they’re equally ugly for operatic singing.)
But the main point is that it’s difficult to get into Italian opera if you’re having to read English subtitles along. It distracts from the beauty of the music. So what generally happens is one becomes really familiar with particular pieces, and so I do not need the subtitles for many of the numbers in my favorite opera, The Marriage of Figaro (also, I know enough Latin & French that I pretty much get the gist even if I don’t have the whole memorized).
Similarly, I have seen Shakespeare edited for performance to modernize the English a bit. One can take it as it is and present to an audience, but it takes really good actors for that. It’s no big deal to update a bit of the language…. but people get pissy about it. Well, I’m not reading Homer in Attic Greek, though I know that I’m going to miss a lot of the subtleties of his language use when I read in translation. But I don’t know Greek (yet).
So here’s the author’s recommendation:
Virtuosity and energy should be keywords – the tralalalala of “Largo al factotum”, for instance, would make an instant impact if sung with panache, as would the comic finale to Act I of The Barber of Seville. And if you want high notes, why not the dazzling circus feat of the Queen of the Night’s top Fs in her second aria? They certainly fascinated me when I was a lad. You won’t get much change out of playing 13-year-olds melodies of elegant reflective melancholy: what they want is thunder and lightning, the drama of grand crescendos and spooky sound painting.
Another suggestion: might it be an interesting (and relatively cheap) experiment to send school groups to an HD cinema relay of a spectacular Met production – The Magic Flute, say – without setting up any preconceptions or suggesting that they are about to encounter something that in any sense requires explaining or introducing? The Magic Flute’s first audiences, after all, didn’t worry about the formalities and niceties of opera: for them, it was just a smash-hit fun musical in a West End theatre, and today it’s still not a million aesthetic miles from The Book of Mormon.
Heck, Taymor’s Magic Flute is available on DVD — no need for the special live HD broadcasts from the Met (though one can do that for their other performances, which aren’t on DVD – in general, it’s difficult to get recordings from the Met, but more on that another time).
My kids love this opera, and there’s a whole story behind that for another time (next Sunday). So I asked them which video clips from Youtube I should include.
Bon said this was her favorite – I’m going to give it without context:
Even without knowing anything about the opera, it’s a funny number.
And then there’s Mo’s pick from the end of the opera:
So now I’m going to talk a little bit why this is the perfect intro opera, whether for kids or adults. First, it’s Mozart. Can’t go wrong with Mozart.
Second, great staging and costuming. Very engaging.
Third, the casting — no, not all choices are that great, but I will concentrate on one: Nathan Gunn as Papageno. One of the best Papagenos I’ve seen — not because of singing quality (heck, the first Papageno had weaknesses, which is why the character gets so much musical support from the orchestra, but more on that another time). Because he’s charismatic. One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen is good singers cast as Papageno… but they don’t have any charisma. That’s as bad as a Puck (from Midsummer’s Night Dream) or Figaro (from Barber of Seville or Marriage of Figaro) lacking charisma.
The whole point of the character is to be the everyman character that everybody likes, no matter how stupid he is (think Homer Simpson). If the singer is flat, in a characterization way, it doesn’t matter how well he nails the notes.
Finally, D’s favorite clip, as he has often attempted to sing this:
Just because this is a kid-friendly opera doesn’t mean there’s no virtuosity.
And that’s the great bit about this opera — you’ve got a range of voice types, some of the characters are fine to cast on their vocal quality and others on their charisma. There’s lots to appeal to kids, and there’s no lack of quality on the musical side.
I will speak more on other kid-friendly operas in the future, but this is a great place to start.
Ash Wednesday Mozart: Requiem Mass - Lacrimosa
Happy Independence Day!
Opera for Beginners: Largo al Factotum and Figaro