Monday, January 14, 2008

Youngsters enjoy Stockton Opera

We were pleasantly surprised by the Stockton Opera Company's performance of Madama Butterfly. It was performed at the Faye Spanos Concert Hall in Stockton. The voices were all outstanding and the orchestra, though small, did a yeoman's job. The guy on the drums was especially enthusiastic.

I noted from The Record article that "the audience for opera in San Joaquin County... has been aging and shrinking." Judging from the audience at Sunday's performance, this observation seemed confirmed.

Well, we went with two enthusiastic youngsters aged 10 and 14. A few we met there spoke with us and more than one was curious how we were able to "get" the youngsters to come out to the opera. (i.e. how were we able to drag kids to the opera or how did we "get them interested" in the opera?) The nature of the implied question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about both classical music and young people.

In fact, the kids begged us to take them. Surprised? Read on...

The simple answer to the question is that young people love the opera and classical music! That probably sounds surprising to some. We think we live in a new age of iPods and Internets and mp3's, and that youngsters can't possibly be interested in something like the opera. But I don't believe that. There are several lines of evidence for this belief I won't go into depth about here; but briefly I've read movie review forums and often someone would remark how this or that movie wouldn't interest young people because it was "slow" or "boring" and didn't have enough explosions, etc. And invariably, a young person, someone like 15 years old or so would remark that is was one their favorite movies. Likewise with classical music and opera.

One fellow during the intermission did express concern that we (they) weren't doing a very good job at passing on the love of opera to the next generation. So, I thought I'd share with you "Joe's tips for how to pass on the love of great music:"

Joe's tips:

First, and most important, don't ever assume for one second that a child won't like classical music. This is simply not so. I can't say every kid will instantly love the opera or classics, but to assume "they won't like this" is the worst mistake you can make. You've lost your connection with the next generation before you even start if you believe that! In my experience, in almost every case young people find something appealing about classical music.

Start by introducing classical music when they are young. Have recordings playing in your home. In the modern world, if you have computer (and I presume you do if you're reading this, duh), there's a vast amount of music of all types available to you. If you're a cheapskate, you can stream classical music for free.

Of course, it helps if you have a love of classical music and "know something about it." However, if you don't, it's never too late to start. The secret is knowing that classical music varies widely, some is hard to listen to (so don't) and some is readily accessible. So start googling for what's good.

We found the kids loved the videotapes and DVD's of operas, particularly Puccini. When the kids were just "hanging out" we would pop in a DVD of Turandot or Madama Butterfly. Without any fanfare, and without any lectures on how you should watch this, you should like this, how much better this music is than that stuff they listen to today is, etc. Just let it play and see who's drawn in. It helps if you know something of the story and can relate it to the modern world when they ask -- and they will.

Which leads to the next important tip: Never denigrate your kids music or "the stuff they listen to." Instead, ask about their music. Who's that singing? What band is that? What's your favorite? Or "what's the popular thing kids at school listen to?" I asked that and to my horror, the answers were things like "My Humps" and "My Chemical Romance." However, avoid the urge to make a face or degrade that choice in any way. We've been through this "generation gap" thing before. In my view, we should be thankful if your child shares with you. So appreciate it! Every generation listens to music their parents hate. Just accept that. It's fine. There's no reason to make a "choice." Kids don't have to give up their music or make any choices, they can like both modern music and the classics.

Lemme digress a bit with another example...

I used to annoy my brother, who didn't have the slightest inclination or appreciation for classical music, by setting the buttons on his car radio (in the family van) to the classical music stations. I had to do it a few times, which of course annoyed him to no end, but fortunately, his wife liked the idea so I had an ally. After a few years of complaining to the family how they should never let me sit in the front seat because "he'll change the buttons on the radio." (I actually only changed the last button, the one to the extreme right so it would be easy to find) one day he said to everyone at the family dinner that something odd had happened. The youngest, a toddler, had asked when they were driving around to put "that music that feels (something I can't recall)?" And he was perplexed by the request and went through the buttons till he found the one, as you can probably guess, was the one I had set on the classical music station. She exclaimed "that's it." He was shocked by this. I wasn't.

Now I can't promise this to everyone, I think this is a quirk, but that child, just a few years later, started playing classical music on the piano. I mean, without ever taking lessons. And she was like 5 or 6 years old. And she played with some astounding skill. It was like some kind of thing you see in the movies about an idiot savant, except that she was otherwise normal. When dad asked "how do you know how to play like that?" She responded, "I can just 'see' (or feel) the notes in my head" or something to that effect. And as she grew, her talent advanced 'till she was some kind of world class pianist. I don't know if she'll ever be famous or anything, but I found it a fascinating event and a great source of pride for her parents. Guess what, I never had to explain or apologize for messing with the car radio buttons that's for sure.

To be fair, the other child didn't do any such thing, and I've never seen this phenomenon in any other child since then even if they were exposed to classical music. So I speculate it was some pre-disposition of talent that she had. But I wonder, would it ever have expressed itself had she not been exposed to classical music? You never know, maybe you have the next budding Mozart in your family!

But I digress...back to the opera

Jackie wondered if the girls were interested in Madama Butterfly because, well, they were girls and it's the story of a young girl, etc. Maybe. So that got me thinking, what would be some good classics for boys? I wouldn't rule out Butterfly or Turandot. (stories of Yankee imperialism and a heroic prince who fights the odds and gets the girl) But also, maybe something like Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, maybe Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf? And for an opera, maybe La Fanciulla del West? Heheh. Yes, that's some stereotypes. (The story of war, hunting trips, and a "western" about an outlaw set in gold rush California). I'm sure there are others, maybe some of you have some suggestions? Share them here!