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November 1, 2018

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From cradle to chorus: rejuvenating opera

TIMES may be constantly changing, but art has an eternal role to play in sustaining our universal need to see ourselves against the perspective of a greater whole.

Expressions of beauty, struggle, love and decadence inspire us to seek uniformity in dissimilar peoples and cultures.

While the primary functions of artistic endeavor may have remained unchanged for time immemorial, there is a constant need to break down and explain certain forms, especially high art like opera.

For the Chinese audience, opera has always been something quite distant.

Opera began in 17th-century Italy. It usually features a large cast and orchestra and spectacular stage design.

It is foreign stories sung in foreign languages. We associate it with stuffy, black-tie events. It is something for Westerners elitists.

Accustomed as we are to the instant gratification of movies, television and the Internet, an online video of more than three minutes seems intolerably long.

Reaching the finale of a three-hour opera without nodding off is simply beyond many of us.

We Chinese, however, are not alone. Italy, the spiritual home of opera, has been grappling with this issue for years and some feasible solutions have emerged.

At the 20th Shanghai International Arts Festival, which runs until November 22, Alexander Pereira, CEO and artistic director of the La Scala opera house in Milan, started his speech with a question: Old patrons will not always be around, but new generations have yet to grow into our audience. Why is that?

Opera is in decline, they say, though almost all aficionados of almost all art forms constantly carp that their chosen fanaticism is in decline.

But it does seem like opera is at a crossroads: To remain as it has been for decades, or adapt to the tastes of the times? Pereira, obviously, has chosen the latter course, and his target audience is as young as four years old.

“We focused too much on people from 25 to 40 years old. This was probably the biggest mistake we made. If we want to find a new audience, we should start as young as we can,” Pereira said.

To this end, La Scala began putting on specially adapted children’s operas.

The works are some of the great classics familiar the world over — “The Magic Flute” and “Barber of Seville,” for example — but tailored to fit the expectations and attention spans of today’s children.

Instead of showing the full opera, which could be long enough to put many adults off, each work is condensed into no more than 75 minutes.

“It’s just impossible to make a four–year–old sit through a three–hour opera. So we reduced it to an hour and 15 minutes, the longest time a child can stay focused,” Pereira said.

Opera can appear rather intimidating, with its grand setting, orchestra and chorus.

With this in mind, the children’s opera troupes are kept small and made up of young performers.

After the performance, children go backstage to see the costumes and meet the cast.

These are the kind of memories that stay with children, sometimes for their whole lives. After watching six or seven operas, children will have accumulated their own repertoires. Little as they may be, they can become ambassadors for opera in their own way, Pereira said.

China has no shortage of its own forms of opera, and faces many of the same issues, in light of the greying of the audience.

Pereira wants to work with the China Welfare Institute to create children’s operas here and is looking forward to operas based on Chinese stories.

“To build future audiences, it’s best to start at the very beginning,” he said.


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