I consider myself very lucky. I discovered opera at a young age, long before I was aware of all the negative stereotypes associated with it. Long before I knew it was "uncool", or even that anything could be uncool, I was listening to the gorgeous sounds of Bizet, Verdi, and Puccini. Long before I knew that my musical preferences would be scrutinized by my adolescent peers, my my love of opera was cemented in my heart.
My parents exposed me to a very broad range of musical styles almost from the day I was born. Irish music and Highland bagpipes were a staple in our home. My mother played me music from all over the world, ranging from klezmer to Russian folk songs, bluegrass to Indian sitar. And, of course, she played classical music. My father played the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd. So by the time I was nine years old, I was very open to any new music, as long as it wasn't pop.
One evening back in 1987, my mother put down the TV Guide, sat me on the couch, and turned on PBS. We were going to try something new! I really had no idea what to expect, but within minutes I was lost in the now-familiar notes of the overture to Carmen. I don't remember much about that evening, but I went to school the next day singing all these wonderful songs I had heard for the first time the night before. That evening changed my life. I began listening to as much opera as I could, and I attended my first live performance at age eleven.
Let's jump forward a couple of decades, now. I have two young boys, ages four and eight. Our morning drive to school usually starts like this:
Me: OK kids, what do you want to listen to today?
4 year old: Eugene Onegin!
8 year old: No, my favorite Russian songs! (Dmitri Hvorostovsky, of course!)
4 year old: Il Trovatore!
8 year old: No, Tosca!
By this point, I've managed to make it out of the neighborhood without crashing the car. Once we've settled on something, the conversation continues.
4 year old: (Singing)
8 year old: Stop singing! I can sing it better!
Me: So let me hear both of you!
4 year old: (Singing)
8 year old: Stop singing!
No one else in either of their classes has car rides quite like this, as far as I know. But I wouldn't have it any other way. I began playing opera for them in utero, and didn't stop when they were born. I took my eldest to his first live performance, Aida, two months before he turned four. He knew most of the music before we went, and was totally engrossed throughout. (I only learned of the "no children under six" rule during intermission, but he behaved very well, and I only had to remind him once, during the Triumphal March, not to sing along to himself.) My younger one has yet to attend, partially because he is so curious about everything that, even when watching something he has seen a dozen times, we're lucky if he goes a full two minutes without asking a question. But at home, at least once a week I put something on the Met Player, and they're both glued to the TV for the rest of the evening.
As much as my children love opera, they are already beginning to hear things like "opera sucks" from their peers. Their teachers are unfamiliar with it, and show no interest when they express their enthusiasm. The other children around them, at best, have never been exposed to opera, and at worst, have inherited their parents' negative opinions about it without ever getting the chance to experience it for themselves. And yet, the minute any opera singer joins a competition such as America or Britain's Got Talent, the audience goes wild. People are starving for opera, and they don't even realize it.
So when is the right time to give it to them? Certainly, better late than never. Friends at work occasionally surprise me when they say things like, "I wish I knew you were going to the opera last night! I've always wanted to give it a try!" Once they have expressed an interest, I go out of my way to try to give them a proper introduction. Many of them have simply never had the opportunity extended to them, and have therefore missed out on a lifetime of enjoyment. Which leads me to the answer to the above question: as soon as possible!!!
The next question, then, is how to give it to them. You could, of course, do it the way my parents did for me, and I did for my children: give it to them straight, from an early age, and watch them lap it up. In recent years, though, more opportunities are being presented by opera companies everywhere to introduce children to opera. For instance, the Metropolitan Opera Guild offers hands-on opera workshops to children ages five to eight, as well as school programs that enable children across the country to experience opera in the classroom and on the big screen. The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis offers an opera summer camp for young children. And the Florida Grand Opera offers programs for elementary, middle school, and high school aged children, including classroom visits, presentations that explore both the vocal and technical aspects of opera production, dress rehearsal tickets, and a mentoring program to help guide aspiring artists on the path to careers in opera. Additionally, many programs are offered in public libraries from coast to coast.
But regardless of how it is done, when opera is presented to children, they usually respond enthusiastically. It's easy for them to get caught up in the drama, the action, and of course, the music. Sometimes, that enthusiasm sticks with them, opening all sorts of doors to the many wonders of opera. Sometimes that first operatic experience captures the imagination of a young child, changing the way he or she looks at music forever.
Perhaps one day I'll pull up to a traffic light, windows down, and hear the children in the next car arguing over whether they should listen to Turandot or Rigoletto. My eight-year-old just might lean his head out the window and shout, "Neither! Don Giovanni!"