Opera and teenagers: Why opera?

“I have to kill 23 other children on live television to placate my totalitarian government.”
“I fell in love with a girl I just met, but I currently have a girlfriend.”
One is the premise of a teen novel, and the other a famous opera. Surprisingly, it is the first, much more unrealistic, premise (Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy) that has 26 million copies in print, and a movie tie-in which made over $150 million on its first weekend alone. The other is from Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier, the story of an upper-class cougar that graciously releases her boyfriend for a much younger woman. This is set to some of the most beautiful music ever written. To me, it’s obvious which storyline is more realistic and relatable – and yet opera still has a reputation of being foreign and artificial. To me, opera is the perfect art form for teenagers, who want to be simultaneously entertained and feel that they, and they alone, understand the true emotions and angst of a character.

I was first exposed to opera when I heard Escamillo’s aria from Bizet’s Carmen on my Babar the Elephant video, and I was 7 years old at the time. I decided that I liked the music, and forced my parents to buy me a CD of the opera. Of course, I soon became addicted to the art form, because I found the music so much more intense and beautiful than the pop music all of my friends were interested in. And as I grew older, I realized how powerful and therapeutic opera can be, and I can say without exaggeration that I could not live without opera. Live performances, CDs, Youtube videos, LPs, baroque or obscure bel canto or John Adams – I listen to whatever I can get my hands on.

As a result, it should be no surprise that I always try and convince my friends to come with me to performances, and it should also be no surprise that they always say no. Met General Manager Peter Gelb once proudly announced that the average age of his audience had dropped from something like 62 to 57 (I don’t remember the exact numbers, but they were close), so that’s a pretty good indication of how my 17 year-olds visit the opera on a regular basis. And every time I ask a friend to come along, they always say the same thing: “It’s too expensive, it’s archaic, and I won’t understand anything”. Of course, they are viewing opera in a stereotyped, and frankly inaccurate, way. They’re not even using the fat screaming lady excuse – James Valenti once performed Madama Butterfly in Vancouver, and they still refused to come.

Let’s start by getting the cost stereotype out of the way. We are no longer living in the Victorian era where we have to wear top hats and jewels to each performance, and opera is no longer (for some of the audience, at least) purely a social event. Most opera houses, in their attempts to attract young people, offer highly discounted rates and can be bought for under $20. That’s far less than the cheapest seats to a sports game or a pop concert, and let’s see what that $20 pays for in each show – on average, you have a few international star singers, some local singers in smaller roles, a full chorus, a 60-piece orchestra, a conductor, and a bunch of stagehands. Every single one of those people is performing for 3-5 hours each show, all for just $20 – and that doesn’t even include the director, set designer, costume designer, and the administration. Compare that to your $150 pop tickets, where there’s a small band, Lady Gaga lipsyncing to her own recording, and some strobe lights. Now I’ll admit, I like Lady Gaga’s voice and her shows are really quite entertaining. But if it’s a beautiful voice you want, let’s go to an Angela Gheorghiu concert. If you want spectacle, we can go to Zeffirelli’s Turandot, in which every square inch of the stage is covered in gold. If you want a shocking show, just google anything by Calixto Bieito.

Which brings me to my next point – the fact that opera is 400 years old is an asset in my opinion. Because there is so much diversity within opera, there is something for absolutely everybody at absolutely any time. There are certain arias I listen to when I’m need to calm down, wake up, get excited, go to sleep (sorry, Einstein on the Beach)… The advantage of an art form that IS 400 years old is that it has constantly developed and refined itself, and in doing so explored every possible emotion. Even if I can’t relate to Ariodante when he sings an amazing aria about being betrayed, the music and emotions are enough for me. Even if I haven’t been betrayed by my lover (pretty much every opera), or haven’t experienced death (pretty much every other opera), listening to these operas help me experienced these emotions in a less extreme and more contained way, and hopefully will help me deal with my own emotions when those things ever happen to me.

Finally – where did the impression that opera is incomprehensible come from? Sure, it’s often in a foreign language, but that doesn’t stop any of my friends to going to see the last big foreign film. Especially with the introduction of titles either projected above the stage or behind the seat in front of you, it’s no different from seeing a movie. Especially with online librettos and Wikipedia, it’s really so easy to google the opera and find the story beforehand.

And the other thing about opera – even though many of the emotional situations in opera are magnified and perhaps distorted, they are emotions that teenagers CAN understand. Think of many operatic characters: Madama Butterfly, Cherubino, Brunnhilde, Manon, Salome, Octavian, all of them are teenagers and have the same feelings and emotions as teenagers today. Most other operatic heros and heroines are very young as well – even though the singers may be older, Violetta, Mimi, Don Carlo, Carmen, and many many others are probably in their 20s. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the majority of operatic leading characters are under 30. Even the most extreme situations in opera – Wotan putting Brunnhilde to sleep on a giant rock, for example – is just an exaggerated case of a father punishing his rebellious daughter.

Take Manon, for example. Her first lines in the opera are:

Je suis encor tout étourdie,
Je suis encor tout engourdie…
Excusez-moi! excusez un moment d’émoi…
Pardonnez à mon bavardage…
J’en suis à mon premier voyage!

which roughly translate as:

I’m still completely dizzy and numb
Excuse me! Excuse a moment of excitement
Forgive my rambling,
I’m on my first trip!

Which is, in fact, exactly how I react every time I’m on a trip. Although Manon may not be the most famous teenaged operatic character (that would probably be Cherubino), I find her completely sympathetic and understandable. Of course, opera can be extreme, and that’s part of the reason I enjoy it, but we really need to move away from the stereotype of opera being an art form where women scream in iambic pentameter about their lost lovers. In my opinion, art is not just entertainment, it is a mode of expression that trains us to think in a certain way. And within the arts, opera is the most intense form of expression, with music, dance, acting, literature, stagecraft – that can seem simultaneously real and artificial.

Therefore, when I ask my friends to come with me to the opera, I never want to hear the phrase “but I don’t understand it” again. Even if you don’t understand the language (not that this barrier stops you from watching foreign films, by the way), the thoughts, emotions, and actions of the characters are just like yours, and you will be overwhelmed by its beauty and power.

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3 thoughts on “Opera and teenagers: Why opera?

  1. I’m so glad Facebook put me onto your blog. I, too, was hooked on opera at age 7, a Metropolitan Opera Ring Cycle, the size, emotional grandeur and beauty of which started me on a lifetime with opera both personally and professionally (I design operas and co-wrote the libretto to one). That was sixty years ago this coming fall and I was the weird kid at school because opera led me to read books on history and art, novels that had been made into operas and to see plays that had become operas.

    Thank you for writing as you have — it is a joy to read and the best thing I can wish you is that you have as much fun, as many horizons opened up to you, and as much deep satisfaction in the arts as I did. Bravo!

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