Out of the mouth of babes: why opera isn’t just for fat Italians

Posted on December 15, 2010


Back in November, eight boys and eight girls from the Colorado Children’s Chorale Regional Tour Choir (RTC) played the part of the street kids in Opera Colorado’s productions of Puccini’s timeless opera “La Boheme.” As always, the kids did a fantastic job learning some difficult music, and in a relatively short amount of time gained the incredible level of confidence it takes to sing their own parts as 5th, 6th and 7th graders while spread all over a gigantic stage in the midst of a sea of adults. And not just any adults, but adults with seriously loud pipes whose vocal parts more often than not bear little or no resemblance to their own.

Not only did the kids make it look easy, but they simply couldn’t get enough of being in an opera. Of course this made me happy to watch them grow to love it so much, but it also made me feel weird. As I watched them, I couldn’t help but wonder: why? Why did they care about it? What was in it for them? In a world where opera is more likely to be mocked and marginalized- not just by their friends but by most adults they know and American society at large- why did they seem to be having such a good time with it? Well, being the musicapologist that I am, I decided to bombard them with questions about their conversion to opera before each performance. Their responses to my questions were, as always, well worth sharing.

What was clear was that when they agreed to participate in the production, they had absolutely no idea what they were in for. They seemed to agree that sometimes music rehearsals could be a little tedious, if for no other reason than that it was just plain hard work learning the notes AND how to sing in Italian (at the same time). But once they hit that first staging rehearsal and the music began to come to life for them, opera easily won their hearts. What they had thought would be “boring,” “silly,” and “um, like, unenergetic” turned out to be the opposite: exciting, serious (but with some funny moments), and um, like, full of energy and life. The more they sang and acted out the music, the more they understood it. And the more they understood the music, the more they loved it. They even began to hum along with the principals (the stars/main characters in an opera) when we would hear them over the monitor in our warm-up room.

I was curious whether or not they had the guts to tell their friends about the fact that they were in an opera. When I asked for a show of hands of how many of them had told their friends that they were doing this, all but two raised their hands (both of the kids that didn’t raise their hand were boys). But most said that they had no problem telling their friends about it (definitely less insecure than I was at their age). One girl admitted that she was nervous about telling her friends that she was in an opera, but when she got up the courage to do so, her friends ended up being excited for her. Another girl said that her friends were so supportive of her being in an opera as a 6th grader that “their (positive) attitude contributes to mine.” Gotta love that.

However, out of all of the things the kids told me that they enjoyed about the experience, it was clear that what many of the kids seemed to enjoy more than anything was the opportunity to have meaningful interactions with the adult performers- both on and off the stage. Most of the kids were given “stage parents” on stage (parents that they would inevitably run away from during the production to find opportunities to be naughty in downtown Paris), but backstage the adult performers developed a real bond with our kids. Anyone that knows anything about putting on an opera production knows that there is a LOT of rehearsal involved, which means everyone in the production spends a lot of time together (for better or worse). Our kids and the adults took lots of pictures together, got each other’s autographs, and some of them even exchanged gifts at the end of the run. In a world where kids have fewer and fewer opportunities to have meaningful interactions with adults, that time was certainly precious to everyone, and it will no doubt warm the connotation that opera will have in their hearts and minds for the rest of their lives.

I know that not every child can be in an opera. And I’m not here to suggest that each child should be. In fact, I’m not even here to preach about the need for more music education to create more opera fans. I just think that as musicians, music marketers, and music lovers, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what these kids said. As any opera fan would hope, the kids loved the music (after some initial struggle, mind you), and they loved the whole experience of opera. They said it was “amazing,” they encourage everyone to “go see (an opera) before you judge it,” and they want to make sure that all of you know that “it’s not just fat Italians standing on stage hitting high notes.” But in a world where so many things are competing for these kids’ attention, time, and commitment, opera ultimately won out over other things and created some new young fans because it gave them something that they needed even more than music: relationships.

Music I DARE you to listen to

Do you like Michael Buble? Andrea Bocelli? If so, have I got a treat for you! If you haven’t met him yet, allow me to introduce you to Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo. Remember that name so that when you hear it crop up from time to time for the rest of your life, you can feel cool because you know who people are talking about.

I want to do an experiment. I’m going to share three recordings of the same aria (a solo from an opera) with you. One is of Pavarotti singing, one is Andrea Bocelli, and one is Vittorio Grigolo. Listen to all three if you’ve never heard this song before. If you do that, by the time you get to the Grigolo recording you’ll have a great sense for the melody and you can just enjoy the voice and the melody instead of trying to learn the melody and taking in so many different new things all at once. (Note: sometimes I think we don’t realize just how many times we listen to a pop song before we like it. When there’s a song that’s popular on the radio, we’ve probably heard it dozens of times before, and that repetition is what endears the song to us. With classical music, we often listen once and throw it out if it doesn’t grab us right away. This is a no-no. I recommend listening to something AT LEAST three times before deciding you don’t like it, no matter what the genre.)

All in all, this whole experiment will take you about 15 minutes, but I assure you it will be worth your time if you can find 15 minutes this week to do this. Grigolo is intensely expressive and passionate when he sings, which I love, and I think you’ll enjoy as well.

The aria is called “Una furtiva lagrima.” It’s a very famous tenor aria from the opera L’elisir d’Amore by Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti. In the first two clips, listen to the basson solo in the orchestra because it’s the same melody that the singer will come in with. The more you can get that melody in your head, the more you’ll enjoy listening. Here’s a translation of the aria to follow along with, courtesy of http://www.aria-database.com:

Una furtiva lagrima 		A sullen and secretive tear
negli occhi suoi spuntò... 	That started there in her eye...
quelle festose giovani 		Those socialising bright young things
invidiar sembrò... 		Seemed to provoke its envy...
Che più cercando io vo? 	What more searching need I do?
M'ama, lo vedo. 		She loves me, that I see.
Un solo istante i palpiti 	For just one moment the beating
del suo bel cor sentir!.. 	Of her hot pulse could be felt!..
Co' suoi sospir confondere 	With her sighing confounding
per poco i miei sospir!... 	Momentarily my sighs!...
Cielo, si può morir; 		Oh God, I shall expire;
di più non chiedo.		I can't ask for more.

I highlighted “M’ama, lo vedo/She loves me. That I see,” because I want you to listen carefully to the music there. This song starts in a minor key (very sad sounding), but when he gets to the part about the woman loving him, it moves into a major key. Listen for that switch from sadness to joy- even though it only lasts for a few moments. You can’t miss it- especially in the Grigolo recording.

Enough rambling from me. Enjoy!

As always, I truly appreciate those of you who are willing to check out these musical excerpts when I post them. Thank you so much for taking your precious time and doing something that we could all stand to do more of in our daily lives: listen.

Until next week, you stay classy Planet Earth. And if you liked Vittorio Grigolo, you should definitely buy his CD “The Italian Tenor.” GREAT stuff.

Posted in: Music