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Introducing your child to the opera

An interview with Seattle Opera Director of Education Perry Lorenzo

How old were you when you first attended the opera, and what opera did you see?

The first professional opera I saw was Gotterdammerung, the final opera of the four-part Wagner Ring cycle, when I was a teenager. I was overwhelmed by its grandeur and beauty. But I had already loved opera, from listening to the Saturday Metropolitan Opera performances live on the radio, as well as from listening to LP recordings borrowed from the library.  

What operas would make it onto your list of good “first operas”? Why?

I think that almost any opera is a good first opera, because every opera has attractive qualities as well as peculiarities. However, any of the really popular operas are popular for a reason, because audiences instinctively, immediately love them: Puccini’s famous La Bohème, Tosca or Madama Butterfly; Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro; Verdi’s La Traviata, Aida or Rigoletto; or Leoncavallo’s iconic Pagliacci, which includes the famous “Laugh, Clown, Laugh” aria. But sometimes more rare operas can have an incredible impact on a newcomer. Many people have been won to opera by being swept away by one of Wagner’s mighty works, or even by more rarified masterpieces like Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande. I always suggest getting a CD recording of the opera and listening to it before attending it.  

Which opera(s) next season would you recommend for kids? Why?

All the operas of this next season are appealing. However, I think that Tosca is really appealing to young people, especially teenagers, as long as the plot’s mystery-thriller violence is governed by parental oversight. Tosca is a real thriller of an opera — and I have witnessed hundreds of middle school and high school kids screaming with excitement [at performances]. Of course, yes, there are murder, suicide and violence in the opera. But since the show is sung to over-the-top romantic music, the effect on a kid is nowhere near the effect of almost any television show. However, for much younger kids . . .  The Flying Dutchman . . . and also the beautiful singing and costumes of [Bellini’s] I Puritani will both appeal to the younger set.

If a parent were unsure about whether to bring a child to the opera, what would you say?

Well, since the operas are usually sung in a language other than English, it is quite helpful for a child to be able to read the English translation in the captions projected above the stage. Also, parents know their own children and those children’s ability to sit through a program that lasts longer than an hour: Check up on the length of the opera and evaluate that. Finally, if your child likes movies, the chances are high that your child will also like opera.

Can you recommend some resources or offer advice about how to prepare a child to attend an opera for the first time?

There are no good books anymore which are family-specific about preparing a kid for an opera. When I was a kid, there were several now-out-of-print books as well as classical music education in the schools. I own an old copy of a now-amusing music education book, complete with lovely old ink illustrations, called Operas Every Child Ought to Know.  Well, that’s all gone now. But there are lots of books introducing adults to opera, and a parent could use them as a resource. The three books by William Berger on the operas of Verdi, Puccini and Wagner are quite delightful. Also, your local bookstore will probably have an opera section, and you could browse it to discover the right book for yourself.  But perhaps the most important thing is getting a CD recording of the opera and listening to it several times to become familiar with the musical language and style.

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