I had the distinct pleasure of being able to ask Joyce DiDonato a few questions via email on a variety of topics – it’s not a long interview, but as always, her answers are concise, articulate, and very thought-provoking.
Teenagers are a rare occurrence at the opera, and “Are you sure you’re in the right place? This is the opera!” is a question that I hear a lot. As a result, it’s always a pleasure to meet another teenager that not only enjoys opera, but is just as knowledgeable, opinionated, and experienced as any other opera fan I’ve met. Blogger Operateen is one of those people, and it’s a pleasure to follow his blog and twitter and have someone my age to discuss opera with. I have my own opinions on teenagers and opera (see some of my previous posts), and I was curious get the opinion of another teenager. I’m sure you will find these responses as interesting and thought-provoking as I did.
What got you interested in opera, and what about it appeals to you as a teenager?
For Christmas one year, I received a “certificate” from my parents, letting me do something fun in New York City. The arts had always been in my life, but they had never been front and center like they are now. Broadway held my interest, but I wasn’t one to go and check the website regularly and stay updated. If I heard about something, I would ask to see it, and I had no desire to see the two standbys: The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King. Sports games had been ruled out from the beginning. To this day I have no interest in sports. When my mother suggested the opera, I’m not totally sure why I wasn’t consumed by the stereotypes of the obese German woman with Viking horns. I said yes, and my grandfather and my mother took me to my first opera, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at the Met. I loved every minute of it.
There is much that appeals to me as a teenager. One is that the problems are so prevalent. No matter how you feel, there is an appropriate aria or recitative to describe it. ‘Caro Nome’ has been a status of mine on social networks at least 10 times. It never gets old. Another thing is that opera is my sport. While my friends are out playing lacrosse, I’m just as happy to listen to a Saturday matinee broadcast. The radio is my equiptment and the airwaves are my field most of the time. I try to see as many live performances as I can, but opera is an expensive hobby. A lot of what you see on my blog is a product of careful radio listening.
Do you often bring friends to the opera, and how do you convince them to do that?
To my regret, I am yet to bring a friend my age to the opera, but I have brought family friends. I try to share my interest with opera with everyone I meet and I guess the stereotype is dying, because most come and enjoy it. I took a close family friend to The Enchanted Island, and she, a diehard musical theater fan, loved the performance and accompanied me to Tosca the following month. As an opera fan, to recruit opera fans, you have to make it as “appetizing” as possible to fight stereotypes. Especially in a world where people think popera exists. (It’s a fictional genre of a pop-opera hybrid. I’m in denial.)
Many people say that music education is necessary if we want more youth in opera – from you experience, do you agree?
You probably hear me bring up stereotypes a lot on my blog and in this interview. I think musical education is critical from a young age. This does not necessarily mean making your child learn the piano or violin at the age of six months, but musical education is imperative in schools. I have clear memories of the music class in my elementary school. We learned about the basic classical composers, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky, and some other musical concepts. It’s important to foster a love of classical music from a young age so those children grow up to be the listeners of tomorrow.
It’s very hard to be “sort of” into opera and classical music, and I find that there are three branches of the classical music field. The listeners, or the most common group of everyday working people who have the classical station preset in their car. Then we have the performers. These are the singers, composers, and musicians who are studying or are already into performing classical pieces. Then, there are the scholars. The scholars are those who will go on to publish books about classical music and write blogs and articles on subjects they have studied very hard on. As a blogger, I consider myself a scholar, and a listener. Most everyone involved with opera is a listener.
I myself play the trumpet with the school ensemble, but I haven’t found it to be a great passion. I’m actually stopping it at the end of this year, in favor of taking up a theater class. My future goal is to be general manager of the Met, but I think the instrument has helped. When you play music, it’s easier to appreciate music. When Anna Netrebko sings that high D at the end of the first act of Anna Bolena, you automatically respect it more, when you consider how freakishly high a high D really is.
What would attract you to a particular performance – the singers, the conductor, the production, the opera itself? Do you prefer modern/regie productions?
This is an interesting question. Music scholar Fred Plotkin published an article about this on the New York classical music radio station website about what draws a singer to a particular production.
For me, opera is an all-encompassing art form. That includes direction, sets, costumes, and of course acting and vocal talent. I have a few examples of what has drawn me to a performance.
I am a big fan of Anna Netrebko, and it was my goal to hear her live this season. After missing the run of Bolenas, I set my sights on seeing her sing Manon in the spring. Aesthetically, this production had few redeeming qualities. The singing however, was some of the best I had heard in my entire life. Netrebko as Manon and Beczala as des Grieux were spectacular. It was the singing that drove me to this performance.
When the Met revived Fanciulla a few seasons ago, I wanted to see it. Not because I really wanted to see the production and I didn’t come for Deborah Voigt either (Even though she is spectacular), I came to see the rarely performed opera that I felt a type of “connection” to.
However, a few seasons back, I went to see Gheorghiu in La Traviata at the Met. This was the Zeffirelli production they recently retired in favor of an empty stage and a muscular man in a dress. I’m not a fan of Gheorghiu, thus I went more to see Zeffirelli’s spectacular production before it was retired. (Actually, when a production is retired, they burn it. Sad, I know.)
I’m not a fan of regie. At all. Personally, I don’t get it. I don’t have an artistic mind, so when you put a black box on a stage with mood lighting, I see a black box with mood lighting. Nothing more and nothing less. It perplexes me and I don’t see the need to interpret an idea or message in a way that isn’t as direct. I would prefer a new concept production like MacAnuff’s Faust for the Met that was updated to World War II over regie.
What is your opera repertoire of choice? Do you listen to new operas? What opera would you bring someone who has never been to the opera to and why?
It’s hard for me to confine myself to a single repertoire. I’m a big fan of Puccini and I’m easing myself into Wagner. I also like Verdi and the Bel Canto era. You could pretty much say that I listen to it all, even new operas. That doesn’t mean though, that I would go and buy tickets for Einstein on the Beach or something similar. With opera being an expensive sport, you have to learn to compensate. I have to mostly buy tickets for performances that I know I will like, and not as much for the purpose of exploring a new composer or opera or genre. That’s why I’ve taken massively into pre-performance preparation. I will listen to an opera three or four times before making the decision to get tickets or not. Sometimes though, I will get press tickets which will help broaden my repertoire.
For a first opera, I would have to say something like La Traviata or Tosca. These are both operas with pretty basic plot and beautiful music. The most important aspect of introducing someone to opera is the hope that they will get “hooked” but there is no “right” first performance. If your friend is an avid fan of Greek myths, take them to see Orfeo ed Euridice. If they’re a poet, take them to Werther. Play to their interests and make the opera relatable and exciting for them, because when they feel that they are a “part” of the opera, they get hooked.
When (if) you bring teenagers who have never seen an opera to a performance for the first time, what do they like? Dislike?
So far, the closest I have brought a friend to opera was watching part of La Cenerentola on tv at my house and it didn’t go too well. In our current day and age, opera to “”outsiders” is just one big stereotype. So no matter how pretty Anna Netrebko is, or how much the meaning of “Caro Nome” ties into teen life, it’s a hard sell to anyone, and I’ve gotten “You like Oprah?” at least ten times.
I’m planning to take a friend to his first opera in October, but he’s already in to opera and classical music. I understand how people form these conclusions though. Opera is marketed as a woman fat woman wearing Viking horns and screaming. I wouldn’t want to be a part of that either! As a new generation of opera fans, we got to make the stereotypes disappear, or nobody’s friends are going to come to the opera. But still, we have to keep trying. Though I held my friend captive watching Cenerentola in our family room a few years ago, maybe she discovered a type of music she didn’t realize was there. We can’t keep calling opera a dying art form because when we say that, it’s the people losing steam, not the music.
You can go to Operateen’s blog here: http://operateen.wordpress.com/