Tossing Opera to the Younger Generation

The subject of “Opera and classical music are dying art forms” has been the dreaded fear for music lovers over the last century. As horrifying as it sounds, is it actually true? Opera companies around the world such as the Seattle Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago have incorporated opera institutes and guilds in which children and young adults can participate. Orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic host children’s concerts, such as O TannenBRASS!, and make themselves accessible to the larger public through their use of the Digital Concert Hall. If opera and classical music are still dying, is the message not getting through? For kids to be interested in these art forms, every opportunity should be granted allowing them even the opportunity to develop an interest. Maybe the classical world is working too hard and is attempting to “force feed” classical music, pushing it to the point of forcing it upon on the younger generation.

It is true that some people do not need extra nurturing to find interest in classical music. I endured Wagner’s heavy nineteen-hour Ring Cycle at age six and fell in love with opera without much previous experience. I watched the entire Ring on DVD before attending the Cycle live, and had been introduced to opera previously through recordings. However, I had grown up around my musical parents, with classical music playing constantly in my home. What about the kid who lives nowhere near the Met, surrounded by family members who never keep an ear to WQXR or opera broadcasts elsewhere, and who has had no exposure to classical music even within his or her school? He or she is not going to take on the Ring as it is, let alone “lighter” operas such as Carmen and La Bohème. For someone who has had no exposure to the art form whatsoever, I feel it is important to give him or her every single opportunity to experience it: Watered down or not.

Luckily, through the Internet, non-profit musical organizations, and other sources, opera and classical music are spreading to the younger generation. Through the Internet, for example, groups such as Opera 5 on YouTube present shortened opera plots in two to three-minute videos in order for opera to “make sense” to the naïve or uninitiated. A kid who has never heard of Richard Strauss’ drama Salome might find it funny how Salome’s step-father is somewhat of a creep or “perv”, asking his step-daughter to dance in the nude for him. They may call their videos “Opera Cheats”, but I don’t feel that watching these videos should be considered cheating if watching them leads someone to finding an interest in opera, and then proceeding to research what the real thing is like.

When the Met Opera Guild takes its presentations to schools in and around New York City, their representatives are not putting on fully-staged three to four-hour performances. The Guild’s various program offerings include allowing students to write their own compositions, voice instruction, student performances, and giving libretti, CDs, and English translations of operas to teachers to present to their classes. After the students are introduced to opera through this gentle approach, they have the opportunity to see final dress rehearsals at the Met itself. Instead of throwing operas such as La Bohème at them and saying, “Take it or leave it,” the Met Opera Guild coaxes their interest and then reveals to the students what the real deal actually is. Four hundred sixty New York City school children attended the dress rehearsal of La Bohème in September through the efforts of the Met Opera Guild.

Maybe some of those kids would have had a positive reaction even if La Bohème had been outright thrown at them. It was undoubtedly more meaningful to them, however, having previously had the presentations and opportunities given to them through the Guild, to have it mildly tossed to them. The younger generation is not going to suddenly become the next generation’s opera buffs with merely age and maturity nor should the opera world expect to alter or change the younger generation. That is why the more experienced side must conform for—or at the very least accommodate–the other side in order to spawn interest, not vice versa. Opera and classical music are arts that must remain accessible to everyone, not just to those who are willing to bravely plunge in without prior information or to those who have existing knowledge about the art forms. It is the informed side’s fault if the younger generation “misses a chance” to hear about or try opera. Missed opportunities for new people to experience opera, watered down or not, are unfortunate.

Without Joan Sutherland’s “Who’s Afraid of Opera?” videos using puppets and $10 sets, it is certainly possible that opera would still have interested me just as much as it does today. These delightful “condensed” versions of operas, seen at an extremely young age, could not have hurt, however, in fostering my early positive response to music as well as furthering my interest. I do not know if I would have experienced the same passion for the Ring had it been informally shoved at me in its full unadulterated form from start to finish when I first experienced it. Luckily, however, through Joan Sutherland’s videos and other “dumbed down” classical music videos, I did not miss my chance to try it. Perhaps “dumbing down” allows for opportunities for quite smart and surprising revelations—on the part of the uninitiated as well as the diehard fans.


5 comments on “Tossing Opera to the Younger Generation

  1. Melanie,

    I think Rupert Christiansen is absolutely right here:

    “Opera has been told to get more entrepreneurial, to exploit itself as a brand and move out into the real world in search of wider popularity. Everything has been tried, from television relays to souvenir tea towels to evangelizing visits to sink schools, with only limited success (I have yet to meet a teenager who claimed to have been inspired with a love of opera through a project run by an education department).


    “Which brings us to the question of the audience. ‘Where are the young?’ is the battle cry — to which the answer must be that they are there in small numbers, pretty much as they have always been. Look at any photograph of an opera audience from the early 20th century and you can see that the basic make-up remains pretty much unchanged in terms of age as well as class”


    “There is a sophisticated young audience for opera but it is very discriminating and it doesn’t want to be fobbed off with second best. It comes largely from university students in the Russell Group, and, in my experience, it is as fiercely critical of phoney pretension in matters of staging as it is of inert cliches and routine. Its members haven’t been been formally educated or instructed to enjoy opera, they have simply been drawn to it by their own musical or theatrical sensibilities and aesthetic curiosity. This is as it should be”

    • That may have been true of the last century, but as this new generation rises through the internet, which the young generation and opera companies share, I think that they can both get closer. The opera world will be far less elite, as the younger generation is already fluent in the ways opera companies are starting to advertise. As a teenager myself, I have met many teens who have fallen in love with opera through projects run through the Met guild; Seeing final dress rehearsals is a biggie. The young are there, they have just been turned away by the elite, sophisticated, and sometimes snobbish air given off by fans and even companies themselves. That’s why I was saying that opera needs to conform to the younger generation in order for it to be more relatable and “fun”.

      • Melanie,

        “The young are there, they have just been turned away by the elite, sophisticated, and sometimes snobbish air given off by fans and even companies themselves. That’s why I was saying that opera needs to conform to the younger generation in order for it to be more relatable and “fun”

        Since I came to know and love operas from listening to audio recordings and studying scores on my own rather than from seeing them in the theater, I guess I will never understand either the whole ‘outreach thing’ or why anyone would be “turned off” by another person’s snobbery.

  2. Of course, one thing that would benefit all opera houses is to get rid of some of the idiot directors who appear to have their own axe to grind.

  3. Every time this debate comes up, someone says….. “Well, but opera at one point was very popular, like in Venice when several opera theaters catered to the masses and were frequented by the masses like today’s cinematic multiplexes”

    Sure. But those were different times. Opera was THE ONLY game in town. It occupied that niche. Still, it was mostly a certain kind of opera that achieved that sort of popularity – the buffa kind; with exceptions, of course, but mostly, as a heir of the popular commedia dell’arte. Those theaters weren’t bringing to those masses, some sort of long, sophisticated French Baroque serious opera sung in French. No, they were showing the slapstick kind, in Italian. Otherwise, opera throughout its history has always been more geared towards the elitist side.

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