Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Back To School

"Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life;' insisted Miss Jean Brodie when she was in her prime. Back in the days when I worked for a YMCA summer camp, the teenaged boys who went sailing, swimming and waterskiing during the day got used to hearing the voices of Joan Sutherland, Ethel Merman, and Beverly Sills emanating from my office as they returned to their tents each night.

Recently, when I dined with a former camper (who is now a Yuppie lawyer on Wall Street) he made a rather startling confession. "You probably never knew it at the time but, in a very subtle way, you let us all know that, in addition to sports, it was okay for opera and other cultural stuff to be a part of our lives."

In addition to introducing young audiences to opera by having them attend student matinees, educational outreach programs have had a tremendous impact in planting the operatic seed in the minds of America's youth. During classroom sessions held in Florida's Bradenton and Sarasota school districts, students were asked if they had ever seen an opera. Few raised their hands. But when asked how many of them watched MTV, the air was suddenly filled with eager arms. "Well, Tosca was the music of its day,just as Motley Crue or Sting perform the music of today," singer Jeanette Lavoy told the youngsters.

"The idea is to give the kids something they can remember, whether they react with giggles or in awe;' insists Lois Flach, Director of the Manatee Council for the Arts. "We don't know if they'll become the opera audience ofthe future, but they'll be stimulated and remember this form of music."

Having finally conceded that their audiences are not getting any younger, most impresarios have finally acknowledged the need to work harder at instilling a love of opera in the minds of the very young. Thanks to the educational outreach efforts of the San Francisco Opera Guild, students in the Berkeley school system are receiving a hands-on experience with the art form by composing and performing their own operas in Italian. In other cities, performances of children's operas such as John Davies' The Night Harry Stopped Smoking, Karen DiChiera's Snoopy Goes To Northland, and James McKeel's Jargonauts, Ahoy! present opera in a time and place meaningful to schoolchildren instead of teaching them that the only place opera ever stood a chance was in nineteenth-century Europe.

If the Armed Forces and today's televangelists can be so brazen about recruiting young souls to their causes, there's no reason why opera's professionals can't follow suit. In hopes that the seeds planted through its educational outreach programs will grow into strong, well¬educated operagoers who buy tickets and donate money, OPERA America has recently developed a solid curriculum for Grades K through 12. Opera is, coincidentally, the only performing arts discipline to have developed such a tool for teaching America's youth.

The basic rule of thumb is simple: "As ye sow, so shall ye reap."

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This article originally appeared in the October 1988 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.

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