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At the Opera with Tyson and Sam

June 21, 2012

Arts journalists should make a point of attending arts events with people under the age of 20.

I'm saying this having attended a production of The Magic Flute this week at San Francisco Opera in the company of Tyson and Sam, both aged 13, pictured with me to the left. (Their mother, Pam, who was also with us for the field trip, took the picture.) It's been ages since I had so much fun at the War Memorial Opera House.

The San Francisco Opera's excellent new production is in many ways a fantastic choice for opera newbies. But that's not to say it's at all "dumbed down" or "family friendly."

David Gockley's playful English-language translation deftly captures the colloquial spirit and rapacious energy of Emanuel Schikaneder's original libretto. The language is sexy, funny and unstuffy while being intelligent and lyrical. This balance is eloquently echoed in the "doodle-like" quality of Japanese sculpture artist Jun Kaneko's production design, with its animated, colorful daubs and dribbles of color and eccentric, geometric forms.

Plus, the performances are mostly fantastic. I adore the contrast between Nathan Gunn's sweetly salacious Papageno and Alek Shrader's upright Tamino. I only wish that Kristinn Sigmundsson, who's usually imbued with one of the most impressively earth-shaking basso profundos, had better control of his low register on the night I attended. The notes at the bottom sounded spread and feathery. They didn't match the glorious richness and command of the rest of his voice.

Tyson and Sam made me experience opera-going in a whole new way. They asked intelligent questions about the characters, pointed out things I hadn't noticed before in the orchestra pit -- Tyson, a former trombonist, disapproved of the type of instrument that one or more of the players was playing -- and forced me to think more clearly about an opera which I have seen enough times to cease to contemplate in any deep way.

Pam reported that her sons had not stopped talking about the event on the way home to Palo Alto (a forty minute drive) and that new opera fans had been born that night. I certainly hope so.

Primed by The Magic Flute, I think these 13-year-olds are now ready for this season's productions of Nixon in China and Attila. And I'd like to encourage the San Francisco Opera to do what it can to inspire more teens to attend.

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