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Opera: Young at Art

Rupert Christensen, in Britain's "Telegraph," had this to say on his blog earlier this week about teenagers and opera:

My conclusion is that opera has less and less to say to teenagers: it remains an art form that people come to appreciate later in life, and it may be better just to accept this and stop trying to sell it to the young like a salutary dose of cod liver oil.

I couldn't disagree more. I think, first, that Christensen is wrong to take Opera Holland Park's stats as representative of the field as a whole (and I'd like to see more than two years of figures before drawing conclusions). Though I do think he's right that we shouldn't hold it (or any form of classical music) up to newcomers as being "good for you."

But my real beef is with his statement that opera "remains an art form that people come to appreciate later in life." I think opera is practically written for teenagers: it's all about big wild uncontrollable emotions expressed in very loud voices, and speaks directly to the teen experience. Half of opera's heroines, after all, are young teenagers with rather naive and overblown views of love and life. I think lots of people who love opera start loving it young. And I always wish people didn't try to veil the art form in clouds of gentility and Great Art and view it as an acquired taste. Much of this stuff originated as down-market popular culture -- certainly in Italy -- and it's good to keep a little vulgarity in the mix.

I'm not sure whether this Huffington Post article from last year that a friend recently forwarded me is an antidote to highbrow prissiness, or simply one more example of trying to proselytize to a young hip audience by talking down to it. But I'll take it.

By Anne Midgette  |  May 28, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  music on the Web , opera  
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Comments

I can't speak to general trends in the population, but I first got into opera as a teenager. Many children enjoy being in band, orchestra, or chorus, or really enjoy musical movies and performances. So I think teenagers can enjoy opera. No need to make marketing to youth too silly. Don't make it embarrassing by trying to hard to be cool. Good productions, surtitles, and affordable student tickets go a long way.

Posted by: nonpareil_b5 | May 28, 2009 7:36 AM | Report abuse

The primary problems with it as an art form are that it has the stigma of being something stodgy (and will probably keep that air as long as the ticket prices are high, and as long as senior citizen discounts are the only ones given) and the lack of surtitles (which does make it significantly harder to understand the plots, as many of them are drawn-out and move slower than the average movie; unless you are the sort of person who can appreciate the music alone, a lack of surtitles and a lack of research into the plot can turn off many people). If you make opera more accessible to people, period, you will make it more accessible to the young who may not have studied the variations in musical themes to a given opera ad nauseum.

Opera can be really exciting (and not just because someone holds a note for two minutes straight, says the twentysomething). It's just that many arent' willing to research and commit the plot to memory, *and* deal with a language barrier, *and* pay a high price to do it for an average of 2-4 hours.

Posted by: forget@menot.com | May 28, 2009 8:29 AM | Report abuse

Opera should be presented in English to heighten its dramatic impact. There, I said it. Not really relevant to why the young people might like or not like it, but who cares.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | May 28, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

As someone who has taken a gaggle of 10th graders to the Washington National Opera's dress rehearsals for high school students for the last several years, I can say that in most cases opera is a natural fit for the 16-year-old mind. My students have immediately understood and bonded with the passions and melodrama of the operas they have seen (in recent outings, "Tosca," "La Fille du Régiment," and "Turandot"). We spend some class time learning about the art form, the composer, the story line, the characters, and watch a classic DVD production to get an idea of how stagings can vary. At no point do I ever present opera as "something good for you" or some kind of high cultural duty, instead emphasizing the outlandishness of the emotions, the occasional violence, the opulence of the music and stagecraft. It does not hurt that my students, who are all boys, get the chance to spend the evening with girls from other high schools -- that should be one of the most important functions of any opera house!

Posted by: Charles_D | May 28, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I respectfully disagree with Lindemann777, and second the comments of Ms. Midgette, and the first two comments under her posting above.

As a mid-teenager, I saw (largely with public school groups, and not with my parents who had never seen an opera) productions, in the original language, of popular operas by Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini, all of which were presented in theatrically very exciting manners.

Teachers prepared the students for the operas, and the operas were described by them as something similar to, though deeper than, the American musicals almost all junior and senior high school students experience, at least in most American public high schools (and also as comparable to, though longer than, Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” which was once, long ago, broadcast regularly on American privately-owned television).

(Operatic education of young people should be easier now in the age of PBS, the NEA, and televised opera and video recordings – but perhaps we are not being well served by PBS’s scattershot approach to American culture today. Maybe an opera-friendly, U.S. tax-payer supported American foundation could work with the WNO, the MET, the San Francisco Opera, the Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston Operas, and Opera America to find out why, if this is indeed the case.)

Last night, PBS screened a popular (in NYC, at least) new American musical obviously about young people and I remember PBS screening Baz Luhrmann’s exciting 'La Boehme' (Australian Opera) a dozen years ago, which was in Italian and aimed at younger and new opera audiences. (I haven’t seen the disc of the revised Australian Opera version from 2002.)

I would also think that the WNO’s Andrei Şerban 'Turandot' rehearsals aimed at high school students would be quite exciting. (And why isn’t Turandot being projected, in full length, on a Kennedy Center inside lobby-end screen, in lieu of one of the Millennium Stage presentations? Or in Union Station? In Berlin, the Berlin State Opera regularly feeds opera broadcasts into the railway stations at many times of the day and night.)

Posted by: snaketime | May 28, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

I think Ms. Midgette is right. I got hooked on opera while in high school when my French teacher assigned the class to listen to a Met broadcast of "The Tales of Hoffmann" and write a report. I've not heard of anyone recommending "Tales" as a first opera, but it certainly has the characteristics Ms. Midgett describes plus a healthy dose of the fantastic. In any event, I have been going to the opera, listening to the Met, and buying opera recordings ever since -- and that was in 1946! (P.S. "Hoffmann" is still a big favorite of mine.)

Posted by: wsheppard | May 28, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

I saw "Turandot" at 18 and found it deeply, deeply boring. Earlier that year I was bowled over at a live performance of Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion."

It's dangerous to make generalizations. For me, I've enjoyed operas more when they are in English, or when they are "Jenufa." But I've never gotten "into" opera, so what do I know?

Posted by: Lindemann777 | May 28, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

I think the critical error most opera companies make when trying to engage with 'the yoof' is talking down. In teenage terms, I'm almost elderly at 26 and even I cringe when I see the efforts of most arts companies to be 'hip'. Its the same disease as marketing focusing on that opera tickets are no more expensive than good seats at a hockey/football/baseball etc... game. Its a ridiculous comparison as the two experiences are so different. Thus its equally absurd to try and equate opera with teenage slang (which changes so quickly the opera's brochures are out of date before they've even hit the presses) is just as futile.

If the product has be 'sexed up' to sell to teenagers, then what's the point? Its the type of thing that needs the resources (beyond most nonprofits) to be absolutely committed, or it probably does more damage than good.

Posted by: ianw2 | May 28, 2009 6:44 PM | Report abuse

I'll start by outing myself as WNO's publicist, so please take my comments with a grain or two of salt. I was at the Turandot rehearsal with the 10th graders and it was absolutely inspiring. They whooped, clapped and generally brought excitement into the opera house that night. We and the more senior audience members LOVED it. We like that youthful energy and want to see more of it.

As for reaching out to young folks--one of the things that we don't always do a great job of communicating to the general public is that we ARE actively engaged in youth outreach and education. Our free and low-cost programs reach approximately 25,000 people each year, mostly public school kids grades 1 through 12. We supplement music education programs with rigorous curriculum that's aligned with education standards. Many of these programs are in-depth and ongoing, not one-offs. Part of our mission is to serve a broad community, and our education programs do that really well. One of my favorite parts of my job is working with the kids...seeing 3rd graders produce their own operas is inspiring and a good reminder of why I and so many of my colleagues got into the arts to begin with.

And then there's our Generation O program, which is a free-to-join initiative that offers deeply discounted single tickets and subscription tickets to the 35-and-under set. Gen-O also puts on special events mixers, and they're becoming quite popular. With more than 10,000 members, it's one of the most successful audience development programs in the country. Next season's GenO seats go on sale in August.

Yes, opera tickets may seem pricey at first glance, but if you love opera and know where to look, it's fairly simple to get a good deal. Between Gen-O, day-of rush, and the occasional discount, I would wager that anyone who wants a ticket for $50 and under could snag at least a few tickets during the course of a given season.

Broadcasting is another post for another time. But let's just say that if a donor-fairy wanted to drop hundreds of thousands of dollars into our collective lap, we'd gladly be doing more TV, DVD and online educational and enrichment activities.

Have a good day everyone.

Posted by: OperaLove | May 29, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

“but if you love opera and know where to look, it's fairly simple to get a good deal.”

OperaLove, I will respectfully disagree. Maybe you came of opera age during the dot.com boom or the post 9/11 real estate boom, but $50 to $60 ($60 more realistically considering the WNO “handling fee”) for an often obstructed view (subtitle-less) ticket is still quite a sum of money, especially if you are a gal or guy who might want to pucker up the nerve to treat another guy or gal (or gal or guy) to a special evening out at the Kennedy Center, and maybe throw in a salad or a beer or glass of wine or a cab-ride home.

The WNO $25 ticket policy has been inscrutable, in my opinion. Several people have asked me about the $25 ticket policy, and I haven’t been able to answer them. (Someone above mentioned that senior citizens can get these tickets, but twentysomethings, many of whom are now unemployed, can’t. These liminal citizens are virtually told to attend Millennium Stage events instead, which although generally great, are not opera.)

Where are the WNO discounted tickets for the young, the unemployed, the recently graduated nonprofit workers, and military service veterans?

Has the WNO ever thought of offering a plethora of transparently advertised $25 and $35 and $42.50 tickets to ALL performances (and not just reducing the generally unsold, unwanted side orchestra seats to $78 or whatever the correct new figure is)?

(Perhaps the opera-fairy could support $25 and $35 and $42.50 seats, as well as urban trees and arts consultant studies …)

Posted by: snaketime | May 29, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

I'd say the other big obstacle to reach younger crowds is the reliance of arts companies on subscriptions. 20somethings rarely want to commit to something for tomorrow night, let alone 8 nights over the next 12 months. I know that it'd be cheaper for me to subscribe rather than buy 8 individual tickets, but I just don't want to commit like that.

Posted by: ianw2 | May 29, 2009 5:14 PM | Report abuse

snaketime--good point re: clear information about how to get cheaper tickets. Duly added to the WNO to-do list...look for clearer info on dc-opera.org for next season, which is on sale now for subscribers, with single tickets on sale in August.

ianw2--If you're not already a member of Gen-O, please think about signing up through the website. You will have access to deeply discounted tickets ($35 and $50, some in premium orchestra sections), sometimes relatively last minute. It was the first group I joined when I moved to DC several years ago, before I was affiliated with WNO, and I've always thought it was one of the best deals in town.

Posted by: OperaLove | May 29, 2009 11:46 PM | Report abuse

I took my grandchildren to a performance of "Rigoletto" when
they were four and six. They loved it. Shortly thereafter, they watched videos of "Don Giovanni", a couple of Wagner operas
(yes, Wagner!), and many more which they played until they almost knew them by heart.

Today they are grown women who still attend operas (when they
can afford it) and have all of their favorite performances on their
IPods along with Sondheim, Sinatra, and Green Day.

There's no trick to this, folks: introduce them to it before they
realize they're not supposed to like it!

Posted by: operanut28 | May 30, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for responding and acting, OperaLove. Whereas our household doesn’t need the deeply discounted tickets, we know many artists, young people, and ArtLovers who do (unlike music critics for whom tickets prices are not an issue).

Posted by: snaketime | May 31, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

I think that opera companies themselves need to take responsibility for proseletising the art form. I am happy to say that we here at Portland Opera invite hundreds of high-schoolers to the final dress rehearsal of each of our productions. Also we have a rush programme under which students can get a ticket for $10 for any performance. They seems to love it...and are very vocal in their appreciation. They certainly get it. And with translations being available on the supertitle screen they don't seem to have any problem whatever in following along. Another aspect of their attendance which always brings a smile to my face is that in a city where 'formal dress' means you wear a clean hoodie, the kids love to get dressed up...ball gowns, top hats, ties - and not as a means of poking fun at the event either but because, I believe, they see themselves as a part of the experience.

Posted by: spl888 | June 1, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Fred Rogers did a great deal to introduce children to the idea of opera. Here is part one of the great Rogers classic "A Granddad for Daniel."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgPSXrBvoj4

Posted by: elainefine | June 3, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

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