Before you read part 2, make sure you read part 1.
The high school play and (perhaps even more so) the high school musical are longstanding traditions in the United States. I myself appeared in two musicals in bit parts (West Side Story and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat) and watched several other ones (Grease, King and I, Hello Dolly and Oliver!). However, I have never seen a high school opera, for good reasons.
Most importantly, it would practically constitute child abuse to ask teenagers to perform opera. Their voices won’t be physically ready to sing opera for a few more years, and asking them to sing opera could cause permanent damage. (I’m not exaggerating.)
However, this lack of high school operas is another reason why people do not go to opera houses, because most Americans are never introduced to opera in their formative years. A young person often experiences children’s theater. I remember my mother taking me to see productions of Sleeping Beauty, Winne the Pooh, and Mary Poppins, and I also saw several children’s theater productions when I was in elementary school. As I grew older, we were expected to read many classic plays in high school, including The Crucible, A Doll’s House, Cyrano De Bergerac, and of course numerous plays by Shakespeare. (Of course. :))
I was also fortunate enough to have school field trips to the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall. They had special shows for children, and played classics such as “Pomp and Circumstance” “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and the “William Tell Overture.” Our music teacher had a copy of the program in advance, and played all of the pieces we would hear, and talked a little bit about the music.
All this aside, I never had the opportunity to experience opera as a child. The closest I came to it was a a brief episode of an Australian show for children, that had puppets singing opera. I looked it up on Wikipedia and I believe it was called “The Maestro’s Company.” We watched the episode about The Barber of Seville. But other than that, the only other opportunity I had to experience opera was in Looney Tunes. Needless to say, I had almost no experience with opera by the time I went to college.
Colleges with music conservatories may occasionally perform operas, but even those must be very carefully selected. I once talked to a vocal student at the Cleveland Institute of Music and she told me that it can be very difficult for them to select an opera to perform. First of all, the conservatory will very likely have more women than men, and unlike in theater, it is not possible to have women perform the male roles. Second of all, the number of operas that young opera singers can sing is also limited. An opera student begins with only the lightest of opera material, and gradually takes on more challenging music as his technique improves and as his voice matures. (The human voice matures long after the body.) This means that the voice teachers must work together to decide what repertoire the students will sing, and who will sing it. The student told me that the voice teachers always had veto power over the student’s desires for a role (as they should).
The Cleveland Institute of Music would often get around this problem by performing excerpts or scenes from various operas. Sometimes these opera scenes would have a loose theme, though usually it involved a bit of a stretch. For example, one show was about the role of flowers in opera. However, at one point, they said, “Well, Florence is the Italian word for flowers. So let’s listen to “O Mio Babbino Caro.’ Nonetheless, I have really enjoyed their productions, with the exception of the time they performed something by Wagner. (Wagner! For the love of God, Wagner!) I remember asking a student at CIM why on God’s green earth they were asking them to sing Wagner (NOT normally given to young opera students) and she didn’t know.
My point in these stories is that it is relatively easy to give young people the ability to experience most other forms of theater. Students can experience a variety of theater, and they can also have the experience of acting out scenes for themselves. Young people in America do not, and really cannot, have similar experiences with opera. For one thing, it is impossible to have young people sing opera. Another problem is the fact that the plots of operas are often not appropriate for youngsters, with sex and violence. Ballet has The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, but these kinds of stories seem rarer in opera. (Rossini did Cenerentola, which is a joyful rendition of Cinderella, but I don’t know of many operas based on fairy tales.)
I’m not sure how to change this. The only solution I can think of is having English teachers show students videotaped production of operas based on Shakespeare plays. The best one would be Otello. The teacher could even pass out the text of Iago’s aria, and compare it to Iago’s soliloquies in Shakespeare’s Othello. The two characters diverge in very intriguing ways. That’s the only solution I can see at this point. (And I haven’t even mentioned the language barrier!)