A Roman Candle

by James Conlon

About a week ago I witnessed a heart-warming spectacle in Rome.

Imagine 750 kids between the ages of five and twelve, screaming, giggling, squealing with delight, singing, dancing while running on and off the stage of a theater. It lasted about an hour and ten minutes in all.  They were grouped together by age and filled almost the entire orchestra level of a theater. The adults are allowed to sit in the back and in the balcony, where the teachers could watch their students from a distance and their parents could videotape freely and take as many photos with their iPhones as their hearts desired.

Sound like a nightmare or a scene from Dante’s Inferno? Not at all.  It was the end of the year performance of a Mozart opera designed for school children. Not just to attend, but, more importantly, to learn and to participate.

Why do I say a Mozart opera? Because I actually attended, on consecutive days, two completely independent projects to introduce and cultivate a love for opera through direct participation that are thriving in Rome. One of them is produced with private and corporate sponsorship, and the other a consortium of government and private sponsors.

On a Friday evening, I attended an abridged version of Don Giovanni, and the following morning, a similar arrangement of The Magic Flute.  The Don Giovanni was produced by the Associazione Musicale Tito Gobbi. Spearheaded by the dynamic personality of the renowned baritone’s daughter Cecilia, it collaborates with schools not just in Rome, but from Umbria and all the way south to Sicily. I serve on its honorary board (mostly from a distance) so I was particularly eager to see the product.  Entitled “Magia dell’Opera” (The Magic of Opera) it defines its mission as that of planting the seeds in the new generation for the creation of future audiences. It is in its eighth season and estimates that more thirty thousand children have experienced this over the years (six to seven thousand this year).

The following morning the Rome Opera, offered its similarly conceived Magic Flute, translated into Italian. Supported by the government, this program has greater means at its disposal. It is now in its seventh year.  In its first year, four hundred students attended.  It gave thirty-four performances over the past several weeks this year and estimates that about seventeen thousand children participated.  That is forty-two times the number of students than at its starting point only a few years ago.

Children’s symphonic concerts are very important, and certainly nothing new in the U.S.  I am also aware that there are outstanding programs offered for young people by many American orchestras and opera companies. But I have never seen anything like this before, and certainly not on the scale of what is going on in Rome.

It operates on the pedagogical principle of “active” education in which the students participate. The performance is the culmination of preparation over the course of several months. A team of instructors first meets with teachers in the schools, providing an instruction book and a recording with excerpts from the opera that the children will actually sing at the performances. They commit these all to memory, just as millions of young people do with popular music. The instruction books, marvelous examples of imagination, provide background, not just about Mozart and the particular opera in question, but the history of the art form from Monteverdi to Shostakovich. There are illustrations of the classical Italian opera theater, pictures with explanation of all the instruments of the orchestra. All of this is interspersed with games, quizzes and puzzles. The characters of the opera, the texts to be sung are all included.  The students and teachers receive these months in advance. This is how they learn the subject.

The culmination is the performance. It is abridged and adapted, accompanied at the piano. A secondary benefit of the system is the opportunity afforded to young professional singers. Some are still in (or just finishing) conservatory. There is a narrator (in one case it is Mozart; in both cases dressed in period costumes) who interacts with the children, asking them questions, prompting them to call out to the characters on stage at specific moments. The children are encouraged to make their own costumes, choosing the characters they prefer.

The best moment is when they all stand up and sing together from memory–everything from Leporello’s opening lines, the enumeration of Don Giovanni’s conquests in the catalog aria to (pointing their fingers) the final chorus condemning the protagonist to his eternal punishment.  All of the choruses and music of the three children were memorized at the Magic Flute performance, with highlights being Monostatos’ little ditty, and … the Queen of the Night’s famous second act aria (!!!!). Can you imagine seven hundred children doing all of that at once!?

Between the two organizations, approximately twenty-four thousand children have seen, “sung” and “acted” in an abridged Mozart opera in the past six weeks. Both organizations said that many of the older students have been coming back for years. That means that some now have a “repertory” of seven or eighth operas.  Operas done in past years include The Barber of Seville, The Elixir of Love, Carman and La Traviata. I am sure many of these children will carry this experience through their lives. Many will return over the course of their adulthood and bring their own children. Not only is a future opera audience being built in Rome, but these children are also learning about, and ingraining, a knowledge and recognition of their cultural patrimony.

And before one says those are their roots, but not ours, let’s check our history: All of the roots of what we call Classical Music come from Italy: opera was created in Renaissance Florence, and the art of singing, church music, the first (and sometimes still best) instruments, musical notation and terminology.  Need I go on? These are our roots also.

All of this is possible in America. Perhaps programs like this already exist. If so, whoever is responsible for them deserve our gratitude and praise. We are certainly reading all about the financial troubles in Europe (parallel to our own) and Italy in particular. Yet with all of that, this is one country where they still know how to take care of their children, educating them in an imaginative and fun way.

It is very fine to scratch our heads and ask how we can build audiences, as if there is a quick fix solution to the challenge. There is not, but there is a beautiful, long-term solution–and it starts with five-year-olds. Europe’s oldest city can serve as a great model and light the way for all who want to take up this mission.

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