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Singing the praises of opera - North Edition

“Wotan did not make good choices.”

This is no lie. Wotan, king of the gods in Richard Wagner’s four-part, 17 1/2-hour epic opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, stole a magic ring by hoodwinking a dwarf; sold his sister-in-law to a pair of giants; charmed his daughter to sleep imprisoned by fire — and that’s just what happens in the first two operas.

The person judging Wotan’s choices was not an opera expert. This frank assessment came from the occupant of a car seat in the back of my minivan, in a conversation between my then-7-year-old daughter and her friend. Both of them had appeared as Nibelungen — dwarfs — in Seattle Opera’s 2005 production of Das Rheingold, the first of the four operas in the Ring cycle, and they had attended the other three operas, which sparked some startling minivan conversations.

Opera might not be the activity that springs to mind for a date night, let alone a family outing, so why even consider bringing the kids?

What’s the appeal?    

For kids, it’s a short trip from the make-believe of books and plays to the suspension of disbelief necessary to appreciate an art form that includes characters such as an enchanted swan, a dragon, giants, a magic ship, an evil queen/dwarf/crone/archbishop (take your pick), mermaids and talking birds.

Seattle middle-schooler Nathan May, who attends opera regularly, says, “Kids should see opera because it combines every art form. There’s acting, singing, orchestral music and the visual art of the sets.”

Perry Lorenzo, Seattle Opera education director and international opera lecturer, would probably agree with May. About his first opera experience, Lorenzo recalls, “Certainly the full sweep of the music, along with the romantic sweep of the story, swept me off my feet. But further, the combination of the music, story and scenery appealed to my own childhood romantic imagination, in the same way that movies did, and frankly in the same way my family’s Catholic religious tradition did. All of these experiences are multisensory, multimedia experiences, with an exaltation of romantic feeling.”

My now-10-year-old daughter says kids should see opera because it “makes your mind grow.”

Possibly the most compelling reason to introduce children to opera is the one that often causes people to shy away from it: because opera is regarded as high (read: inaccessible) culture. While many operas do have mature themes, in my experience it is often the “grownup” operas that provide an entrance into important conversations about things I value: integrity, honesty, friendship, kindness, fairness and — yes — making good choices.

Where to start?

There are a number of operas that some consider to be good firsts, but it might be true that the opera your child is prepared to see is the best first opera to attend. You can choose an opera and then prep your child, or you can seek out an opera that might appeal to your child’s existing interests.

Nathan May’s “first” was Beethoven’s Fidelio; he asked his parents to take him to see it because an aria on one of his favorite CDs was from that opera. A friend took her 9-year-old daughter to see Verdi’s Macbeth last spring because the girl loves to play “witches.” Lorenzo’s first live opera was Wagner’s mammoth, six-hour-plus Gotterdammerung, which he attended after falling in love with the operas he heard on the Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. These are not typical first operas, but the kids in question were ready to see them.

Norm Hollingshead, a retired middle-school teacher and opera lecturer, has prepared thousands of Seattle middle-school students to see operas. Hollingshead says that the story is the most important thing. Both he and Lorenzo recommend getting a recording of the opera you’re going to see, and listening to two or three selections. “But,” Hollingshead cautions, “don’t overdo it; have fun and make it a family event.”

The Puget Sound region is a great place to live if you want to introduce your child to opera. Seattle Opera’s productions are consistently excellent and its education department prepares a wealth of resources for each production. For the past few seasons, Seattle Opera has offered a family matinee as part of the run of selected works, with reduced ticket prices for children accompanied by an adult. Next season, the company plans two family matinees, one during the run of Pagliacci and one during the run of Tosca.

Seattle Opera’s season kicks off this month with Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, the tale of a sea captain whose curse will only be lifted when he finds true love. Lorenzo recommends it for kids who aren’t yet in middle or high school. “The romantic sweep of The Flying Dutchman, with its Wagnerian score that sounds remarkably recognizable to any ear raised on movie soundtracks … will appeal to the younger set,” he says.

In addition to Seattle Opera, there are numerous smaller opera companies in the Puget Sound area. Only one, the puppet opera, is specifically for (older) kids, but some of the companies offer educational programs and all are potential first opera opportunities from season to season (see sidebar, below).

Taking a child to an opera can be loads of fun. With a little background and the right production, you can enjoy a night at the opera — with your kids.

Christine Johnson-Duell is a poet and essay writer, and was recently awarded a Hedgebrook writing residency. She lives in Ballard with her husband and daughter, with whom she attends the opera as frequently as possible.

Opera companies and seasons

Seattle Opera
The Flying Dutchman, Aug. 4-25, 2007
Iphigenia in Tauris, Oct. 13-27, 2007
Pagliacci, Jan.12-26, 2008
Feb. 23-March 9, 2008
I Puritani, May 3-17, 2008
Visit the company’s Web site for “Opera 101.” Single tickets for family matinees go on sale in September.

Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society
Mounts one production of a G&S operetta every summer.

Northwest Puppet Center
Baroque marionette opera Don Giovanni runs April 25-May 4, 2008

Skagit Valley Opera
Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operetta HMS Pinafore, October 2007
Children’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, December 2007
La Bohème, February 2008

Bellevue Opera
The Magic Flute
(sung in English), December 2007
Carmen, April 2008

Tacoma Opera
Orpheus in the Underworld
(sung in English), November 2007
“Young Artist Showcase: Uncommon Mozart,” February 2008
The Barber of Seville, March 2008

Opera resources

Sing Faster — The Stagehand’s Ring Cycle (DVD). Documentary. A backstage view of The Ring.

• Shulamit Kleinerman offers classes in conjunction with Northwest Puppet Center on the topic of its annual puppet opera and offers other early-music- and opera-related classes. http://shulamitk.net

• Seattle Opera sponsors preperformance lectures with Perry Lorenzo, Jonathan Dean and other distinguished opera lecturers. Visit Seattle Opera’s Web site for dates in conjunction with performances.

• Norm Hollingshead lectures on opera topics during the Seattle Opera season at King County Libraries. www.kcls.org/programs/opera.cfm

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