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Why opera needs to be a "young person thing"

By Kaila AllisonFebruary 14, 2017

Metropolitan Opera
Metropolitan Opera Beatriz Schiller

I first became interested in classical music in Mr. Baker’s 3rd grade music class. When we were finished playing our perpetually out of tune recorders and singing uninspired renditions of “Old Lang Syne,” Mr. Baker devoted the remaining 5 minutes of class to a performance by one of our classmates, a piano virtuoso. The girl could barely reach her feet to the pedals, but could perform a Chopin Waltz with as much verve and technicality as someone much older, someone with the panache of the past. 

I told my parents I wanted to learn the piano. My grandmother got me a 66-key keyboard and I began lessons in the back of a now-defunct music store, where I was taught by a woman who was the human equivalent of a cream puff. With a softly lilting voice and a collection of rare stickers to adorn my music books, she taught me the basics of note reading and rhythms. 

As I advanced, my next teacher, a mild-mannered Australian, helped build my repertoire and knowledge of music. With him, I studied Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin. The more I played, the more I listened. I was not only playing notes, but was making music. 

The first time I went to New York City's Metropolitcan Opera, I didn’t know what to expect. I had loved Broadway shows and figured an opera would be just like that, but longer, and in a language I didn’t know. My inaugural opera was La Traviata by Giuseppi Verdi. It was a story about a woman who falls gravely ill and devotes the rest of her life to the pursuit of pleasure. Violeta, played by Opera’s eternal Russian queen, Anna Netrebko, surprised me with her vocal and emotional range. I was able to follow along with the subtitles without distracting from the spectacle. At the finale, I realized it wasn’t the story that so moved me, but Verdi’s swelling music. 

What I noticed then, and I continue to notice now, is that at the Met I am usually the only young person in a sea of octogenarians. I needed to tell my friends about how incredible opera was, so they could help me bring down the average age. But my pleas would fall on deaf ears. Most of my friends couldn’t hear the delicious ecstasy of “Un dÌ, felice, eterea.” They couldn’t hear the grand whimsy of “Libiamo.” I was alone with my grandmother in my love of opera. 

 

These are athletes; these are heroes; they make sure that our future is not silent, and that we remember the musical brilliance of our past. 

Why is it that opera houses are begging young people to keep them afloat? The Metropolitan Opera, for example, has offered discounts to students and young people to try to get them in their doors. But the results remain largely the same. Many peers I’ve spoken with think they can’t relate to opera, or that it’s not trendy or young enough to be “cool.” I think what people don’t understand about classical music is that it can be just as exhilarating as club music. Here’s what’s cool: the larger-than-life sets housed with impossible delicacy by the Met; the strength that requires a dancer to toss his partner skyward; the lung capacity of the principal oboist of an orchestra. These are athletes; these are heroes; they make sure that our future is not silent, and that we remember the musical brilliance of our past. 

A few years ago, I bought the entire score to La Traviata. After trying to play it, I knew that there were too many parts for me to play on my own. I was not an orchestra, but just a person. To young musicians, students, artists, and to anyone that seeks a new creative outlet, I say this: try opera. Keep this ancient, beautiful art alive. Go with your grandparents, then with your grandchildren. It’s not just an old person thing; it’s something special for everyone.