Introducing opera to kids

By on October 31, 2009

It was probably fated that the first opera I would take my oldest son to see would be Die Walkurie. At five months old, listening to the music, he grabbed me, pulled himself upright using me as balance, and then straddled me bouncing up and down, as though riding a horse. Grane and Brunhilde, were waiting for him.


And while there are arguably many more beautiful operas and certainly there were composers whose musical abilities were superior to Wagner’s, there is almost no composer whose opera scores have translated more readily to film than Wagner. The helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, the climactic battle in John Boorman’s Excalibur (set, most fittingly, to Gotterdammerung).  Wagner may never have seen a movie, but there were movies running in his head, nonetheless.


My sons, both my sons, love movies. And both have taken to opera at the ages of 4 1/2 and 2 1/2 as I write. They love many other kinds of music: Gregorian chants, classic rock (Clapton, the Rolling Stones, some Hendrix), grunge rock (Nirvana and Pearl Jam), but opera has been in there since I first began letting them listen almost a year ago. My wife thought I was pushing them too fast, too far, until, one day when I was away, they cried until she put on, of all things, Carmina Burina, in the car.


This is always a concern – my sons are half Japanese, we live in Japan, they are growing up bilingual yet choosing to listen to music in a third language (German, or with Gregorian chants, Latin, or pop Gregorian, sometimes French). At what point, I have been asked, do you draw a line?


My answer, invariably, is that I do not. That line is not mine to draw, not yet. So long as my sons can enjoy, absorb and learn, the more they do it, the better.


Sion Raphael and I were very fortunate that the Tokyo Philharmonic had several performances of both Das Rheingold and Die Walkurie. I asked him which he would like to see (his preference was Gotterdammerung but that will be performed here next year) and he chose Die Walkurie.


We were also fortunate that the Tokyo Philharmonic PR department was willing to accommodate us (Sion looks older than he is; the real minimum age is 6). The New National Theatre opera house in Shinjuku is one of those buildings that fulfills its purpose.  


Japan, like America, has its bridges and roads to nowhere.  But the New National Theatre Complex, and in particular the opera house, are the opposite, the bridge to the experience. The Opera House may lack the grandeur of the Met in New York or the history of La Scala or the Phantom of Paris’ Opera.  But it is extremely well appointed, with superb acoustics, roomy lounges and restrooms. For patrons who have had to leave during an act, there are nooks and crannies with wide screen monitors and excellent sound so the performance can be watched until the next intermission (and in an opera as long as Walkurie, the nooks and crannies are used).


The staging of the opera fits a child’s introduction perfectly. Grane is sometimes a child’s rocking horse on rollers, and then rearing up so large that Brunhilde must climb to mount him. The Ride of the Walkuries takes place in a hospital ER hallway, at the end of which is a sign indicating the entrance to Valhalla. The Walkuries are nurses riding hospital guerneys.


Wagner purists would, no doubt, be offended. My son, however, was enchanted. It might be a concession to a certain Japanese manga-large style but that aesthetic has gone global now anyway.


In fact, as the opera was performed, staged and conducted (skillfully and playfully by Dan Ettinger) the story really belonged to Brunhilde (Judit Nemeth) and Wotan (Jukka Raisilanen).  


In Japan, without all the Christian and pagan archetypes, without predestination, fate and tragedy (in the Western sense), the story becomes the story of a father and a daughter, each caught up in conflicts of obligation and duty (themes that have enduring cultural resonance here).


Looking at the story that way, as opposed to the way it was staged by Patrice Chereau at Bayreuth (the gods all 19th Century bankers, Valhalla surrounded by turbines and wheels, what we now call “steam punk”) is just as valid (though the Chereau version is certainly worth another look in view of current events).


There has been a lot of discussion about how the classical arts can stay relevant. Music, particularly ballet and opera are not static forms. A Rembrandt and a Caravaggio are; they exist.  We may learn new details about the painters, or new detection methods may show us things under the surface that we see but they are things, in and of themselves.


An opera, on the other hand, is a story that must be told in scenery, instrumental music and singing. It is thus very, very mutable.


It leads directly into the question of how the classics can appeal. Is it necessary to tone down? Would the Tokyo production we saw be considered (and by whom?) toned down?


I cannot answer. I can only witness that Sion Raphael when running down the stairs at school sings out the Ride of the Walkuries to warn everyone to get out of his way.


That is the only real answer to the traditionalists and to the larger debate.  These forms will survive when the next generation takes them up.


I let my son go off into the deep end of the pool because I trust him enough to make ripples, and for those ripples, together with many others, to be the way these forms survive. 

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