So maybe you are thinking, “I wish my kids had a little more culture.” Or maybe you have followed my classical music suggestions in Playtime with Jesus, or on my Art Learning Placemats and now you want to keep expanding your kid’s classical music repertoire. Any way you figure it, you and your kids should know a little something about opera. Are you ready to get your culture on?
Teaching your kids to enjoy opera is about one thing, introducing them to those gems that they can’t get enough of. Why bother with opera at all? Because it is a centuries old art form that brings together beautiful music and theater to dramatically tell stories through song. The effect is breath-taking.
If you have little ones, start with Leonard Bernstein explains it in an entertaining way. It is a sort of sung monologue that gets quite a bit of the story told, just before the aria. An aria is the fancy song where a main character waxes on and on about their feelings. It could be love, it could be revenge, a deep longing or a diabolical plot. The lyrics are repetitive, but it is the centerpiece of the opera, often showing off the incredible outer limits of the human voice.
Oratorio is a religious version of opera, but only sung, not acted. It has no costumes and no sets. Handel’s Messiah is the most famous example. Every Valley is the one aria to listen to first, besides the Hallelujah Chorus, of course!
But first, let’s get a taste with a few classic arias. The tenor aria Nessun Dorma (None Shall Sleep) from the opera Turnadot, by Giacomo Puccini, is considered by most the most beautiful aria or song ever written. It is sung by the character Calaf who is musing over the dangerous secret game he is playing with the very cruel princess that he is in love with, Turandot. Turnadot has just declared that none shall sleep until she guesses Calaf’s name (yes, a little like Rumpelstiltskin). It is an admittedly weird plot, but that doesn’t diminish the beauty of this masterpiece.
Dance around and even wear some costumes while you listen to the popular arias! Pretend to sing it and be sure to act silly. Most operas are in Italian. Get an English translation so that you can explain what is going on. Close your eyes and listen. Compare several performances of the aria and vote on who you like best.
Explain to your kids that there are several different “voices” in opera. Let’s tackle the (typically) male voices. The higher voice is a tenor. Nessun Dorma was an example of this. The lower voice is a baritone or bass (baritones weren’t really a thing until the 19th century). The baritone aria we will listen to is Largo al Factotum from The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini. It is a comic opera and this aria is hilarious, especially if you watch it acted out. Compare versions.
If you enjoyed that, watch the Bugs Bunny cartoon that uses another piece from the same opera as its soundtrack. After Verdi and perhaps Mozart, Puccini and Rossini are considered the greatest opera composers of all time. The were certainly prolific. Bass arias are usually reserved for villains or goofballs. Basses never get the girl!
Next, there are the typically female voices: soprano (higher) and mezzo-soprano (lower). There are some variations within these, but we want to keep it simple. If you are in a choir setting, that lower female voice might be called an alto. The first piece we will listen to is for soprano voice, the Queen of the Night aria from the opera, The Magic Flute, by W. A. Mozart. It requires astounding vocal range. The queen is singing to her daughter that she will disown her if she does not kill the sorcerer. It is a fun aria to imitate. I even found a coloring page to work on while you listen!
The next aria to enjoy is for a mezzo-soprano voice, Habanera, from the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet. It is sung by the title character as she and the other other girls exit the cigarette factory where they work. Flirting soldiers ask her when she will fall in love with them and this aria is her saucy response. “Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame.” The lyrics of an opera are called the libretto. They are usually written by someone other than the composer. If you don’t use my suggestion of the Grace Bumbry version on YouTube, preview any videos first. Some productions use revealing costumes. You can’t go wrong with an audio only version! If you need a mezzo soprano to sing a bedtime song, try Casta Diva, an aria from the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini.
Spread these lovely pieces out over several “opera appreciation” lessons. Now that you are over “opera intimidation”, next let’s move on to opera duets, choruses, and full-length operas! We are going to start with four fairly family friendly operas, popular enough to catch a live performance of, if you live near a fair sized city. There is nothing like seeing the spectacle of opera live. Get cheap. back row seats or student rush tickets. Bring cheap binoculars (they have some less than $15 on Amazon) for getting a better look at the costumes and sets. Just go and see something! And if you can’t, watch a recorded version. Tune in next week…
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