The Abu Dhabi Classics Young People's Concert on Thursday is designed as a child-friendly introduction to the fantasy and spectacle of opera.
Gala concert tailored to give children taste for opera
To a sceptic, the idea of bringing children and opera together must sound like a recipe for disaster. Isn’t it a little sadistic to expect restless young people to sit still and quiet through hours of staged singing – possibly in a foreign language?
With complicated plots and elaborate, occasionally demanding, music, there are certainly some operas out there unlikely to give young audiences an easy ride. Still, there is so much more to opera than this narrow stereotype: opera is often full of colour, fun, fantasy and excitement – exactly the sort of spectacle to keep children’s attention. And when it comes to music, it’s surprising how open-minded children can be (often more so than their parents).
Just as all musical virtuosity can be exciting, young people are often thrilled by opera’s skilful vocal acrobatics. What’s more, some child development experts suggest that, if you want your children to enjoy classical music in later life – without nervousness or any feeling of alienation – you are best off introducing them to it when they’re young.
Abu Dhabi residents have an opportunity to do just that this week. On Thursday, the Emirates Palace hotel is hosting an especially relaxed gala concert from Abu Dhabi Classics that will demonstrate how enjoyable the art form can be for the young. Staged by Venice’s La Fenice opera house, it is designed for children and should work well as a fun accessible introduction to opera – one that might get some members of the audience hooked for life.
At the very least, it seems to be true that children are open-minded about music, if introduced to it in the right way. Developmental psychologists at Britain’s Keele University have isolated what they call a “golden window” when children are especially receptive to music.
Between the ages of 5 and 11, children have developed some ability to listen and concentrate but haven’t yet reached the self-assertive shutdown of adolescence, when people often narrow their interests down to the clannish enthusiasms of their direct peer group.
This brief period makes children especially receptive, and while inexperienced adults often come to opera having already decided they’ll find it long-winded and boring, children usually haven’t made their minds up yet.
Stripped of the high cultural aura that intimidates people, operas can be very accessible – they are, after all, basically plays where people sing. Operas also get scant credit for storylines that are often gripping, while their tendency to fantasy and occasionally over-the-top melodrama can go down surprisingly well with young audiences.
There’s no denying that a full-length opera might get many children wriggling (something that the brief excerpts at Thursday’s gala will avoid). But if you’re keen to introduce your children to opera, there are other ways. YouTube is full of excellent opera clips (often matched with brusque user comments that prove opera fans are no better-behaved than anyone else) that can give children a taste of the form. Telling your children the stories of operas and explaining what’s happening in any songs you play also helps.
If you fear that all this might be too adult for them, bear in mind how alienating much pop music is (lyrically at least) to the average child. With their sexualised, pseudo-passionate words, most pop songs speak a language children barely understand and often find a bit icky – an opera aria about being a bird catcher, or a young fox, or a poor motherless girl with mean sisters is far more likely to make sense.
When you play music like this to your children, you are helping to give them musical memories that will stay with them for life, ones that will make classical music seem far less intimidating and foreign in adulthood. It would, of course, be a bit Dickensian to restrict your children exclusively to this kind of music, but by making sure they get to know and enjoy at least some, you are opening up future possibilities for pleasure to them that they might not otherwise have.
If you are curious yourself but not sure exactly where to start, many operas are particularly well-suited to children, with familiar fairy-tale plots and/or especially decorative, catchy music. Here is a brief selection of some titles that are particularly worth looking up.
The Magic Flute
WA Mozart, 1791
Witches, mythical beasts, enchanted musical instruments – Mozart’s Magic Flute is packed with fantastical elements that children warm to. From the vocal acrobatics of the Queen of the Night’s Aria to the birdsong-imitations that the bird-catcher Papageno sings to his future wife, the opera is full of catchy, memorable tunes that a reasonably musical child could sing along to. It also has a few child singers in it, placed to help the adult hero on his way. It’s rare to recommend anything by doomy Ingmar Bergman for children, but the Swedish director’s witty, exquisite 1975 film cuts brilliantly through the opera’s stodgy parts – and is even shown to the audience through the eyes of a child.
The Cunning Little Vixen
Leoš Janácek, 1924
Based on a comic strip, the Czech composer Janácek’s charming opera has a cast of woodland animals that often delights children. A bittersweet tale exploring the circle of life and death in a Bohemian wood (spoiler warning for sensitive children: the Vixen dies), the opera features some child singers and offers sophisticated folk-influenced music that is exceptionally lively and attractive. A good place to start is Geoff Dunbar’s cute animated version (available on DVD) made for the BBC.
Hansel and Gretel
Engelbert Humperdinck, 1892
The Grimm Brothers’ story of a cannibalistic witch fattening up her child captives can be very frightening for younger children, but Humperdinck’s opera remains one of the story’s most gripping, persuasive versions. Beyond the framework of a familiar story, the opera also offers children some beautiful, memorable music, most notably the evening prayer Hansel and Gretel sing to themselves before settling down for the night in the forest.
La Cenerentola (Cinderella)
Gioachino Rossini, 1817
Even if its subject were not one of the world’s most popular fairy stories, Rossini’s frothy opera would be a great choice for children. Its elaborate, decorative music pushes singers to the limits of their ability without ever losing its sense of fun and celebration. In a familiar run-through of the classic tale, dusty, neglected Cinderella finally gets both her man and the final song – Non Piu Mesta – as well, one of the most dazzling vocal roller coaster rides opera has to offer.
Love of Three Oranges
Sergei Prokoviev, 1919
A prince falls in love with three oranges, all of which turn out to have extremely thirsty princesses inside. Granted, the surreal plot of Prokoviev’s fairy-tale opera may seem a little odd to adults, but children tend to take its magical logic on board effortlessly. Intended to incorporate the harlequin acrobatics and clowning of Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte tradition, the opera is full of colour and incident. There’s even an excellent production designed by the wonderful children’s author Maurice Sendak – he of Where the Wild Things Are fame – available on DVD. Featuring acrobats, jugglers and huge bouncing monsters dressed in human clothes, this is about as child-friendly as opera gets.
•Teatro La Fenice performs the Abu Dhabi Classics’ Young People’s Concert – Opera for Kids at the Emirates Palace auditorium on Thursday at 11am, followed on Friday by Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the perfect introduction to opera for children and adults alike. See www.abudhabiclassics.com for ticket information.
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