Thursday, October 11, 2012

How to take a child to the opera

If technology (which I'm on a two-week rant against) is dangerous for us because it's easy to get sucked into and hard to quit, what's the opposite?

How about opera?  Opera is hard to get used to, and (unless you had a really good parent/teacher/mentor to introduce you to the genre), really really easy to walk away from.  So it probably goes without saying that as much as I hate (love HATE) my cell phones, I love (love LOVE) opera.

Taking a kid to an opera doesn't sound like a miserly experience, does it?

Okay, it's not.  Operas are pricey, and they're an acquired taste at best.  But if you're GOING to take a kid to an opera anyway, teaching a kid to make the most of that expensive experience is definitely the Miser Mom way to go.  If opera's not your bag, I'm sure you can substitute your own favorite expensive hobby in here and figure out similar ways to prepare the kid for the exquisite experience of luxury that only an adult could love.

Prepare beforehand.

I tell the story of the opera from the end first:
La Traviata is a story about a beautiful woman named Violetta, and you know what happens to her at the end?  She dies!
Then I back up and tell a bit more.
La Traviata is a story about a beautiful woman named Violetta, and at the end of the opera, she's sick but says she's feeling so much better she wants to get up and go to church.  And then you know what happens to her?  She dies!
Then I back up and tell a bit more.
La Traviata is a story about a beautiful woman named Violetta.  Her boyfriend Alfredo leaves her.  At the end, he comes back because she's sick, and that makes her feel so much better she says she wants to get up and go to church.  But you know what happens to her then?  She dies!
And slowly I work my way back to the beginning.  This technique works well with just about every opera.  (Madame Butterfly is about a beautiful woman from Japan, and you know what happens to her?  She dies!  Carmen is about a gypsy woman who falls in love with bullfighter -- and you know what happens to her?  She dies!  Aida is a story of an Ethiopian princess who is captured and turned into a slave.  And you know what happens to her in the end?  She dies!  This, for a kid raised on Sponge Bob, is heady and exciting stuff).

I also play the favorite arias from the opera as going-to-bed music for about a month, so the kids get used to it.  If N-son can watch Ice Age over and over and over again (and he does), then he's not about to get over-weary of the humming chorus from Madame Butterfly.  Quite the opposite -- it becomes a thrill to hear that the people on the stage know that song, too!

Explain the local rules, especially the cool stuff.

In opera, the first violin comes out to tune up the orchestra.  I tell the kids (and this is true) that THAT is my favorite sound in the whole entire world.  I could listen to an orchestra tuning together all evening.  I'm not the only one who feels like this.  Not at all.

Then the conductor comes out, and everybody claps.  Then they play the overture; the correct people know that there is NO talking during the overture.  (I tell my kids that there are always rude people who talk during the overture; my kids are allowed to glare but not to say "shhh!"  It is always fun to be more correct than grown-ups).

There's an intermission when we get to go get a soda (gasp!), and then we come back in for more.  When the lights blink, that's when we know it's time to go back in.  Cool.

At the end of the opera, clapping goes on forever and ever. If you stick your fingers in your ears, the applause sounds like rain and thunder -- likewise very cool.  We love that.

Give the kids a safety valve.

There is no fidgeting during an opera.  None at all.  But the kids are allowed to fall asleep quietly, provided they don't wiggle or snore.  One of my daughters once told her friends, "Carmen was so loud you could hear the music even when you were asleep!"

Another, even better way to get through the occasional boring parts is to see how long you can hold your breath.  (No loud explosions or heavy breathing at the end).  The holding-the-breath trick has been a staple in generations of my family.  Try it during a committee meeting sometime -- you'll see why we love it.

There is no talking while the music is playing (which is pretty much the whole time).  But kids are allowed to ask a very quick question while the audience is clapping.  My kid's favorite question, which they usually get in right after the very first aria of the very first act, is "Is she dead yet?"

When they ask that question, I know the kids are hooked.  They're opera lovers, holding their breaths, waiting for more.

No, baby, she's not dead yet.  Keep watching.


  1. My parents started me out on Gilbert and Sullivan. Then in high school I got hooked on field trips to child-friendly comic/morality operas in the city from folks like Mozart and Rossini and Donazetti. From there I was able to appreciate Puccini and other more tragic operas. (Favorite: Tosca.)

    1. Gilbert and Sullivan are the candy of the operatic banquet, aren't they? Truth: I named my daughter "Iolanthe". She doesn't die. (But you know what happens to Tosca at the end? She jumps off a cliff and *DIES*!) --MM

    2. I KNOW! It is SO TRAGIC. And if she'd just trusted her guy more, or if events had happened a few days later giving time for the cavalry to come she'd have been saved.

      But oh, the power of Scarpia's song about his lust for Tosca with the church service going on. And Tosca's line after killing her would-be rapist, "This is Tosca's kiss." Such power. Such music!

      The teacher who organized the high school field trips told us when he first saw Tosca he didn't know anything about it and hadn't read the flyers. Can you imagine the shock of the guy not getting up after being shot?

    3. I'm totes going to get out my cds now and work to opera. Other favorites (not mentioned above): Die Meistersinger (though I still don't appreciate any other Wagner) and Die Fleidermaus.

    4. p.s. My daughter has a name from a comic Mozart opera. :) Shhh, don't tell anyone.

  2. This post is particularly relevant for me today - I'm going to see Carmen at the Met tonight (in the cheap seats with a fellow grad student). It'll be my first live opera, thus far I've only seen tapes.

    I love these ideas! (Everybody does die, don't they? My grandma always says grand opera means that when someone gets stabbed, they don't die, they start singing). I didn't start watching opera until near the end of high school. My grandma lent me a CD of famous arias, and then we started watching operas she had taped on TV. In contrast to nicoleandmaggie above, we started with Puccini, I guess because I was older when I started, and I think I've still only seen tragic operas.

    1. Have fun tonight. But do NOT get into conversations outside of the show with jealous ex-boyfriends. Those (as you will see) end badly! --MM

    2. That sounds like a story.

      I had a lot of fun! I'm probably going to have the Toreador Song stuck in my head for a week. I very much enjoyed the tenor who sang Don Jose, as well as Micaela and Zuniga. The soprano who sang Carmen started out iffy but she got better as the show went along.

    3. Also I just got that. Heh.