When you hear the word ‘opera’, what comes to mind? Is it the shrieking fat woman in horns? Maybe you immediately imagine the fancy upper class dressed in ball gowns and tuxedos, with binoculars in one hand? From a young age, we are exposed to this wonderful art form. But I’m beginning to wonder, as a young kid, when our ideas and opinions develop over opera.
When thinking about my first operatic experiences, I don’t think of going to theatre. Instead, my mind goes to Robin Williams singing Largo Al Factotum in Mrs Doubtfire and to a young Anna Netrebko, singing Verdi’s Sempre Libera, while Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews watch on in The Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement. I don’t remember thinking it was pretentious. I remember smiling with Anne Hathaway, and I remember laughing with Robin Williams. At this very young age, I was enjoying opera the way it should be enjoyed; with open emotion. Yet, somewhere along the way, I had a fake definition of opera thrown at me, and my opinions and ideas about the genre began to bloom.
I remember the first time I was told I should be an opera singer. I was in primary school in Mullaloo, and I was singing a solo in class. I remember immediately assuming it was an insult, and that this person was actually calling me fat and prudish, and I snapped at them and ran away. I was 10. Only one year before had I been smiling with Princess Mia over Netrebko’s fantastic voice and I must point out, Netrebko was neither fat or a prude in this 2004 movie. So what happened? What created this change? When I asked my mum about opera, she said it didn’t appeal to younger voices and that hit it on the head for me.
I hope to talk about this more on The O Word, but children (and people all over!) can’t just be exposed to any old opera.
Going to the opera isn’t pretentious; it was the original cinema. You wouldn’t want your child’s first movie to be a raunchy tale about a young, untameable woman who seduces a young man, only to have him go mad with jealousy and kill her (Spoilers!), and yet we expose children to the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen. Carmen is the perfect romantic drama to introduce young adults to the opera world; but it is certainly not Disney. In an attempt to expose young children to this art form, we rush them into arias in other languages, telling stories way beyond their mature capability. Often, they are out dated videos of a plump 40 year old woman not moving from her spot, pretending to be a lively energetic 16 year old. This image is far from the young Netrebko seen in Princess Diaries. But the only thing a child would take from a video like this is that they don’t understand: They’re bored, they think opera is super serious and they don’t want to see it again. I hope no other young child takes the statement “You should sing opera” as an insult the way I did: But rather takes on the challenge and faces this exciting, fun world.
Western Australia is making an effort to make opera more accessible and convenient for our locals. OperaBox and WAAPA both presented the beloved childrens opera Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in 2014, Kate Miller Heidke and Iain Graindage’s The Rabbits is set to make a return in 2016 after a successful 2015 season, and WA Opera performs school incursions and tours of opera sets to young Western Australians to expose them to this incredible art form in the right way for children. So don’t play them the out of context aria; Play them children’s operas on YouTube, go to the Luna Theatres and watch The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Rossini’s Cinderella, or better yet: Take them to the real theatre!
And when in doubt, let them watch Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire: Because opera doesn’t always have to professional.
It can sometimes just be fun.
Written by Katherine Goyder