The ABCs of Adult Opera Education
by Glenn Winters, D.M.
This article is dedicated to Stan “Manly Stanley” Arnold, wherever he may be. Stan was my freshman-year roommate at Indiana University’s School of Music a long, long, time ago.
He and I had enough in common (including an insatiable appetite for Noble Roman’s pizza) that we managed to co-exist peacefully in our shoe-box sized dorm room. However, in one giant aspect, we couldn’t have been more different. Stan had never, in 18 years of life in rural Indiana, attended a live performance.
No theater, no dance, no concerts – not even a rock concert. Not even his little sister’s piano recitals. Zippo. His dalliance with the fine and performing arts extended to TV and movies, and no further. He was innocent of even the most rudimentary familiarity with the basics of classical music. I hadn’t known there were people like that; I found it hard to process.
Oh, the irony! You see, decades later (don’t ask how many, it’s not polite), I support my family by traveling around the Commonwealth of Virginia seeking out the Stan Arnolds of the world to introduce them to the alien, exotic and impenetrable world of opera. Tough gig!
I’m a Johnny Appleseed of opera, driving to cities large and towns small, planting talking points and MP3 files everywhere and watching them sprout into ticket-buyers. Churches, Jewish community centers, retirement communities, women’s clubs, men’s clubs, Rotarians, Kiwanis, colleges and universities – anywhere groups of adults convene, I’m likely to be there, with boom box and laptop at my side, making the case for music drama.
What follows is a summary of what I’ve learned in a half-dozen years of talking about opera to people who don’t like opera: my primer of “How to conduct an adult opera education program.”
I. BE FUNNY AND ENTHUSIASTIC.
Do you revere the great operas? Are the works of Wagner a near-religious experience for you? That’s terrific. But if you’re talking to people who’ve never been to an opera, your lecture had better not resemble a sermon. Although, come to think of it, even most ministers these days have learned that a little humor is that “teaspoon of sugar that helps the medicine go down.”
• Embrace opera’s absurdities; the endless death scenes, the corny plots which so often involve two people being mistaken for each other because they’re wearing each other’s cloaks (REALLY??!), the general milieu of loud, screechy voices: there are lots of laughs to be had in acknowledging all of this. You already know what people don’t like about opera; so rather than be in denial about it, just have fun with it.
• If you, the instructor, love, love LOVE opera and get excited about it, make sure your audiences see it on your face and hear it in your talks. I like to say that a good opera lecture should be one-third scholar, one-third stand-up comedian and one-third revivalist preacher. Whatever you do, don’t let the scholarly content dominate. If nothing else, you’ll find it is breaking news to many listeners that it’s even possible to be enthusiastic about operatic music.
II. MAKE IT APPROACHABLE.
Don’t be stuffy when talking about opera; the slightest trace of stuffiness or elitism is instantly fatal. The general public already believes opera is a stuffy art form, so stuffiness on the part of its advocates only reinforces that impression. For example, it’s useful to relate operatic composers, music, characters and plots to popular culture whenever possible
When conducting classes on Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann for high school and college students, for example, I drew an analogy to the TV series Lost, which was in its heyday at that time. One of the fascinating elements of Lost was the device of the back story: every week, events on Mystery Island were interlaced with vignettes from some character’s past, serving to explain how he or she ended up being so dysfunctional and damaged. (And I’d call turning into a murderous cloud of smoke fairly dysfunctional…)
Well, isn’t that the structure used in Hoffmann as well? It surely is; three back stories that enable us to appreciate the significance of Hoffmann’s failure to “hook up” (see? not stuffy) with Stella in the epilogue. “Cool!” thinks my student listener, “it’s just like my favorite show!”
Got him. Hook, line and sinker.
There are an infinite number of examples from popular culture applicable to the opera world. I’ve certainly gotten a lot of mileage out of a certain bad-boy golfer with the nickname Tiger in recent months. Lots of folks in my audiences have attempted to one-up me by proudly telling me “Hey, I have an idea for you! You should compare Tiger Woods to Don Giovanni!”
But that’s not who Tiger is! If you’ll recall, Tiger went on national TV to say how sorry he was for his sexual misadventures. If I’m not mistaken, Giovanni told the Commendatore “Dude, what part of I’M NOT SORRY don’t you understand?” Opera education happens when I explain which role does suit Tiger to a “T”: Count Almaviva from The Marriage of Figaro. Almaviva: the two-faced, randy, cheating husband who, when his philandering is exposed, says all the right things with a level of sincerity that only he can know for sure. Just like Tiger.
III. DON’T ASSUME PEOPLE WILL THINK BEAUTIFUL MUSIC IS BEAUTIFUL.
Another common error made by misguided opera educators has to do with this mind-set: “Once they hear how gorgeous and sensuous and beautiful “The Flower Song” or Isolde’s Liebestod, or the Butterfly love duet is, they’ll be overcome and love it as I do!”
Wrong – at least, in most cases.
Look: everyone is a music lover; but most people love one particular kind of music. It’s their “ear candy.” For many, it’s the music that was popular when they were students. It may be Motown; it may be Classic Rock; it may be the Big Band Era; it may be Broadway Musicals; it may be Lady Gaga. The phenomenon of “ear candy” means that most people expect a particular kind of sensory pleasure from music. It may be the quiet nostalgia of Artie Shaw or the edginess of Mick Jagger or the incessant rhythm of hip-hop. Young men tend to like music that triggers a surge of testosterone: music that reflects and confirms their “tough and cool” self-image. And “Mi chiamano Mimi” is not going to provide that kind of pleasure.
Therefore, I consider it my job as an educator to make my audiences understand that operatic music is not in competition with their ear candy; indeed, that the pleasure of operatic music is a different kind of pleasure, just as the pleasure of reading a Tolstoy novel differs from that of reading a newspaper.
By the way, this concept also applies to casual opera lovers who, say, enjoy the big arias in Tosca but sit impatiently through all the “boring parts” in between highlights.
So how to sell operatic music without stressing its “beauty?
IV. OPERA: IT’S NOT A MUSIC EVENT
An odd statement, considering how much music your average opera contains, right?
So what is it? BIG talking point here: it’s theater. The way to enlighten newcomers to opera is to show them, in magnified detail, the narrative function of the music; to demonstrate music’s ability to define character, to reveal subtext, to crystallize the psychology of a scene, and to exemplify literary devices such as metaphor, symbolism and foreshadowing.
When people tell me “Glenn, my problem is that opera music just isn’t my cup of tea”, I am quick to point out that movies are full of musical scoring which most people would not choose to download to their IPOD, play at a party, or sing in the shower.
Do you do household chores to that stabbing string music in the “Psycho” shower scene? Do you love to dance to the shark music in “Jaws?” Really? But those movies are enhanced by the music, aren’t they? And as evocative as is John Williams’ score to the Harry Potter films, is that what you play in your car on road trips? Yet the film doesn’t work its magic without that music.
In that sense, much of film music is… “operatic.” Here are some examples I use:
• “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto. Being totally frank with you, dear reader, this tune is hardly a model of distinguished melody. Yes, it’s a toe-tapper all right, but it’s also vulgar, common, predictable and – dare I say it? – cheesy in the extreme. Classical music lovers who dote on Debussy preludes, and Beethoven quartets may turn up their noses and say “This is why I don’t like opera. Ew.” And that misses the point. The genius of the Duke’s aria is its very vulgarity, contrasting as it does with the eloquent, majestic, ultra-dignified music given to the deformed court jester Rigoletto. And…. Voila! ..we have another of those literary devices: “irony!” The music of Rigoletto teaches us not to judge people by pedigree or outward appearance.
• To drive home the point, I like playing the entre-acte music from Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment. This consists of a flaccid little minuet that could not be wimpier or more lacking in musical appeal; it’s iconic of the preconceived notion of “classical music” held by many. I find it instructive, therefore, to play a recording of the minuet with no explanation of the dramatic situation and solicit audience opinions, which generally renders this verdict: “BORING!” If this exercise is followed by the revelation of how the tune is used; namely, to depict the dreary, passionless existence of the high-society set to which our tomboy heroine Marie has been condemned, I find a miracle takes place. A giant light bulb appears in a balloon over the head of every single listener, young or old. They get it: the value of music sometimes has nothing to do with its abstract musical merit.
• Another literary device operatic music often employs is point of view. No matter who is in my audience, I know they all had enough English Lit. classes to remember how point of view works in fiction: stories are told in first person or third person. I like to demonstrate this with the character of Lt. Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. When Pinkerton is onstage without Butterfly, his music is by turns cocky (“Dovunque al’ mondo”), shallow (“Amore o grillo”) or cowardly (“Addio, fiorito asil”). But when Butterfly is onstage with him, what a difference! He’s dashing and gallant in throwing out the Bonze, he’s compassionate in consoling her, he’s romantic in the love duet: he’s perfect – Barbie’s Dream Date. See what’s happening? When he’s a jerk we see him as his friend Sharpless sees him (not to mention as Puccini sees him). When he’s with Butterfly, we see him through her eyes; an artificial Pinkerton which exists only in her girlish perceptions. A good “assignment” for beginning students of opera is to have them speculate on the point of view being used in an aria. I’m often surprised by how quickly my audiences catch on to this!
V. DON’T BE AFRAID TO TEACH PEOPLE TO LISTEN ANALYTICALLY; THEY CAN HANDLE IT.
When it comes to the types of “ear candy” cited above, listening to music is easy. One can simply sit back and experience, say, “Begin the Beguine” in a totally passive way – like letting a wave wash over you standing at the seashore.
Operatic music is rarely like that, in my opinion. The great composers – Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Britten, et al – cram their scores with allusions, connections, references; ideas. The greater the listener’s ability to discern such qualities, the greater the likelihood that he will fully appreciate the power of operatic masterpieces. The masters of opera don’t merely “compose music;” they create virtual reality, in which every note, every rhythm, every musical idea contributes to a self-contained, fully realized universe of human interaction.
And, if carefully explained, it’s not brain surgery. No post-graduate degree in music theory is required to appreciate all of this. The Madama Butterfly example discussed above is one example of listening analytically; in that case, to determine point of view. Another good example is found in a favorite work of Verdi. Il Trovatore is the story of conflict between two men who do not realize they are brothers. The audience is let in on this secret via clues in the libretto, but since this is opera, it is reasonable to assume that the composer provides purely musical clues. And he did! Both the Count di Luna and the troubadour Manrico sing lyrical arias in praise of Leonora, the woman they both love. An examination of the vocal lines in each solo reveals two points in common: the opening phrase of each aria traces a tonic triad, starting on “sol”, descending by the interval of a third to “mi”and then rising up to “do.” What’s more, the refrain of each aria shares an identical melodic phrase: a chromatic line moving down by half-steps from “sol” to “mi.” If you take the time to point out these passages, even younger students can hear it, process it and understand the point: that it’s a form of musical DNA deliberately planted by the composer to tell us subliminally that the two enemies are related by blood.
In the past six years, I’ve given around a thousand talks about opera, with audiences ranging in number from two (yeah, that one was a bummer…) to hundreds, and in the case of radio broadcasts, thousands. Has every single listener been converted to opera-lover status? Certainly not, but that’s not the proper yardstick of success. The first step to enjoyment is understanding. Establish that, and enjoyment still has a fighting chance.
Oh, and what became of “Manly Stanley” Arnold? By the time final exams rolled around in the spring semester, Stan had ordered a complete box set of all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas; his particular favorite being the “Tempest”, Op. 31, No. 2.
Got him – hook, line and sinker!
Glenn Winters received the Doctor of Music from Northwestern University; he also holds the B.M. and M.M. in piano performance from Indiana University. His background includes teaching college-level piano, arts administration at two universities, and extensive performing experience as pianist, operatic baritone, and published composer. His original children’s operas History Alive! And Tales From the Brothers Grimm were commissioned by Virginia Opera and enjoyed successful state-wide tours. Mr. Winters joined Virginia Opera in 2004 as Community Outreach Musical Director.