Is opera still suitable for teenagers?

Is opera still suitable for teenagers?


norman lebrecht

January 27, 2018

An Economist correspondent wonders whether he took his 14 year-old daughter to the right show:

This week your correspondent took his 14-year-old daughter to watch an orgy. It was the opening scene of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, in a rather explicit production directed by David MacVicar at the Royal Opera House in London. Had we been sat in the opera house itself, she would probably have seen only a faint blur of nudity in the distance. However, we were watching a live telecast at our local cinema, so she saw gigantic close-ups of quivering nipples and flexing buttocks. She thought it highly amusing. It was followed by three hours of licentiousness and blood—like “Game of Thrones”, but with a less credible plot. In other words, a typical night at the opera. What kind of a terrible dad would subject his children to this art form?…

Read on here.

The shameless ROH reaction page publishes only positive responses.



  • Cynical Bystander says:

    ” Asked if she wanted to copy Gilda’s supremely self-sacrificing approach to romance, your correspondent’s daughter replied: “No, the opera made it quite clear that people who act like Gilda end up shanked and in a bag.”

    Finally, and most importantly, the music is sublime. As the daughter put it: “I enjoyed the evil minor key and the cheerful flutes. Overall, it was incredibly sweet to the ear.””

    The above, from the actual piece, indicates that the 14 year old in question is hardly a representative teenager. How many, I wonder would enjoy the “evil minor key” even if they knew that a key is not necessarily something you open a lock with? And “shanked”?

    I would have thought that most 14 yr olds, exposed to modern media would find most of what the writer cites tame and sadly the music just boring, which is far more concerning.

    This piece,if it is meant to be taken seriously, is more a reflection of the prevailing puritanism of the liberal media than anything else, and that is a greater threat to the arts than any fleeting glimpse of nudity and heaving buttocks.

    • Raymond says:

      “… heaving buttocks …” A wonderful expression!

    • Adrienne says:

      “I would have thought that most 14 yr olds, exposed to modern media would find most of what the writer cites tame and sadly the music just boring, which is far more concerning.”

      Probably true, sadly. But, opera aside, have you noticed how few teenagers listen to instrumental music of any kind these days? A few decades ago there was always something outside the usual classical/jazz genres, but now they don’t even have the vocabulary to describe it. On more than one occasion I’ve heard an orchestral piece referred to as a “song”. Yes, seriously.

      Unfortunately, I think part of the reason is that teenagers, and quite a few non-teenagers, desperately need celebrities. A group of instrumentalists has no appeal, regardless of talent. Film music might be a small exception to this.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    I go to the opera quite often and very seldom see anyone younger than mid-20s, whatever the opera. I suppose there is Hansel and Gretel, as punishment. I first went to the opera in my early teens, and luckily liked it. But could have been deterred for good. I now try to introduce opera-naïve friends, sometimes works. But I agree with the cynical bystander, it si shocking that people are suggesting there may be sex involved in orgies.

  • Anon says:

    Oh, how puritanical we can be! 14 year olds are starting to get busy discovering their own bodies and those of others (whatever their parents might wish) and the idea that we should prevent them from seeing a few bits of flesh is surely parental mollycoddling. I found this Rigoletto far more powerful than any other I’ve seen precisely because it acknowledges that orgies involve nudity and sex (who knew?).
    It powerfully shows why Rigoletto doesn’t want Gilda involved with the Duke, where the tame settings of other productions fail to give a similar impact (why would Rigoletto object to Gilda hanging around a Pall Mall gentleman’s club, boring old farts though the occupants might be, for example?). Isn’t powerful drama and high emotion what opera is all about?

    • Sharon says:

      Part of the issue involving the recent pedophilia and teacher or boss v student or employee recent sex scandals in the classical music world is that even though the subordinate person may legally be above the age of consent, because these somewhat nerdy kids may have done nothing in their lives but study and practice music, they really did not understand the professionally dominant person’s intention or the consequences or know how to say no. In other words, regardless of the chronological age. the subordinate person was just not ready for sex with someone more experienced
      About a year ago I took a friend and her 15 year old daughter to a play that had very explicit puppet sex. My friend laughed about it and her daughter did not seem to mind but I was embarrassed. I know that if I had seen such a scene with my mother or father at 15 I would not have been able to look in their eyes for a week afterwards (and I am not even sure that I would have understood exactly what was happening).
      What I am saying is that sexual maturity varies widely due to a lot of different factors. Some 13 year olds might be ready for this and some 22 year olds might find it disturbing or confusing.
      The way to handle this in opera may be what many websites and other means of publicizing theater and movies do, when there is no government rating system, –say that there is explicit nudity. sex, graphic violence etc and that “parental discretion should be advised” or that it is “inappropriate for those under the age of x”.
      The Walter Reade cinema which is the art cinema of Lincoln Center and screens many unrated foreign films says that they do not admit anyone under the age of 16 unless it is specifically meant as a children’s film (although I have not seen this enforced if the youngster is with an adult). Another alternative is to have a cleaned up version as the weekend matinee and a more explicit version as an evening performance clearly explaining that this is the case in the publicity literature. Perhaps some operas such as Lulu which in the Met Opera version had no explicit sex but some very disturbing adult themes, such as a woman driven into prostitution by poverty and exploitation, and showed the attitudes of some of her johns, should not be shown at all as a weekend matinee. This would also be helpful for older people or people from traditional cultures who prefer a more traditional version of the opera or would want to avoid an opera with adult themes.
      The cleaned up and more explicit versions can even be incorporated in the same opera. I once saw the New York City Opera version of La Traviatta, where instead of tuberculosis La Traviatta was dying of AIDS. There was a scene in an S&M sex club where they had the g rated version of the film playing the same scene on a large video screen (in the club). At least they were giving the audience a choice.although a guy behind me still shouted “Junk! Junk!”
      I believe that we must all remember what articles on Slipped Disc say almost daily, that the arts budget of any government is the easiest to cut and a lot of money for the arts comes out of government educational budgets. Therefore, unlike more commercial arts where there may be “no such thing as bad publicity”, big budget opera houses which are very largely dependent on grants from government and conservative foundations cannot really show anything that people, and especially parents, would find offensive even if this waters down “creativity” or “”relevance”.
      This is true not only for controversial presentations of sex but also politically controversial presentations. I am still amazed that everyone has their job after the MET’s presentation, in spite of the controversy it originally generated at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, of the Leon Klinghoffer opera which portrayed terrorists sympathetically and which generated a large demonstration against it outside the theater in spite of the fact that the other point of view was acknowledged in the program (by printing a letter by the Klinghoffer daughters). I’ll bet that the MET’s development department had to work doubly hard to make up for lost contributions after that fiasco.
      We should also remember that people go to the opera largely to relax, be entertained, be in an environment where they can feel or pretend that they are comfortably “rich”, or be grateful that their problems or behavior are not as bad as the characters on the stage. There can be some intellectual or emotional depth but nothing that makes the audience too uncomfortable or too embarrassed around the children who may be with them. People just won’t pay the ticket prices otherwise.
      Maybe we should just leave the controversial stuff to “indie”, community, or chamber operas. Because they do not have big bang visuals the audience can concentrate more on the theme or message in those venues anyway.
      Just some thoughts…

      • Frankster says:

        “We should also remember that people go to the opera largely to relax, be entertained, be in an environment where they can feel or pretend that they are comfortably “rich.” Some fools think opera is a creative, vital art when it obviously isn’t. Got it.

        • Sharon says:

          Creative, vital art? It can be, but not when tickets, governments and conservative foundations have to cover much of the costs of a five million dollar production.

  • C Porumbescu says:

    The Royal Opera House’s website for the relay stated that it contained “brief nudity and scenes of a sexual nature”. Any synopsis of the opera would make it clear that it deals with sexuality and violence. And like everything shown in UK cinemas, the relay has been classified and has a rating, in this case 12A. Absolutely zero excuse for any parent to be shocked, surprised, or plead ignorance.

    Although of course, it’s pretty obvious that the writer was being tongue-in-cheek.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Let’s get real: a 14-year old can easily see much worse than that at the movies or other media. At least I did, almost 40 years ago. Opera? I first saw Salome at 14, was counting the veils and was disappointed there was a kind of bikini underneath.

    That said, I am not in the least interested to spend a ton of money to take my children to see regietheater opera, at least when the directors distort the libretto out of recognition, frequently with an gratuitous dose of violence and sex. Some of these productions become needlessly inappropriate for pre-teens. My concerns are primarily esthetic.

    I don’t the argument about Regietheater providing new insights. In my personal experience, reading the libretto closely enhances my understanding of the opera more than any production, even one by Otto Schenk.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      More important than watching the dance of the seven veils, or being amused at Salome’s anticipation of Jochanaan’s head, attending Salome at 14 sparked a love affair with the music of Richard Strauss, that has deepened with time and is now approaching it’s 40th anniversary.

      • Sue says:

        Bravo. Couldn’t agree more. I thought this item was actually some kind of joke!!

        • Petros Linardos says:

          Sue, I wrote hastily, maybe laughing a bit at my adolescent past, but was candid. What did you think was the joke?
          BTW, the Salome I saw was at your beloved Wiener Staatsoper. I just checked and was delighted to find out that this beautiful Barlog/Rose production is still running, at least as of last November.

    • Edgar says:

      You point out something very important: reading the libretto closely before going to the performance. Who does that today, when operas are set to begin at a convenient time after closing of business and not before the audience has had the opportunity to have a bite to eat? At least that is the US-way of doing things. With “Salome you are on safe grounds. Just long enough to keep everyone alert and able to follow the story.

      At US Opera Houses, one gets a flimsy “Playbill, with information about performers and a synopsis of the opera, and, with luck, a brief and really insightful article. One looks in vain for the full libretto and its translation. After all, that would be a book, and that is too costly and bad for the budget.

      Two vignettes: a semi staged performance of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” at San Francisco Symphony Hall, with a stellar cast and chorus, expertly led by MTT. At the first intermission, I happened to be invited for a glass of bubbly as a guest of the general manager, who had assembled a group of donors and board members around him. One of the board members, a major donor, spoke up and enunciated” “What is this story about? I don’t get it.” I swear. Nuff said.

      Second vignatte, months after german reunification at Dresden State Opera, entering the auditorium for “Ariadne”: a brief conversation with a local woman who volunteered as an usher for decades. Quote: “Nowadays, no one even has any basic understanding of opera and music in general. I mean, I went here many times, and everyone came prepared. You know? We knew the libretto, we knew the music we were going to enjoy. Last weekend there were some folks from the West (former West Germany) for Beethoven Nine, and they asked me whether there was an intermission! Can you believe that?!”

      Indeed, I can. Depressingly so in these dim times.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Ideally one should read the libretto not on the day of the performance. Life is busy, but it’s also very easy to waste a lot of time on all kinds of media. There are many meaningless challenges to our time management. I gave up the TV signal in 1997 and never regretted it.

        • Edgar says:

          Me, too. No TV. Bliss! (including the composer with that name). Still, I miss comprehensiev program books (La Fenice, until they changed their format and reduced content a few years ago, had excellent material, to be had extra for 15 Euros. Yes, there is often not enough time to acquint oneself with an opera librellto before experincing the piec. but, a good program book offers the great opportunity not merely to keep as a keepsake, but to use it for what in German is described as “Nach-Lese” – literally: “After-Reading”. On the more profound level, the word refers to the intellectual end emotional process of re-visiting the opera experience, gathering in “the harvest” (“Lese”, as, for example, in harvesting grapes) of one’s own feelings, reflections, impressions, appreciations of, and even resistances to, what one has experienced.

          • Edgar says:

            Apology for the typos. Keyboard issues. Mine, not the computer’s.

          • Sue says:

            All the really interesting and intelligent things in the electronic space are occurring on the internet these days; TV is being left behind. And being patronized at the opera by a director who feels he/she has to put their own ideological readings on a libretto because the audience is too thick to get that….away with them!! Begone.

  • Gene says:

    Ironically, Tommasini in the NYT didn’t much care for the current Tosca production at the Met – also directed by McVicar – because it isn’t Regietheater enough!

  • Edgar says:

    The MacVicar production is played at a very apt moment: it would even be better had it been set in London’s very own Dorchester Hotel, where the all-male “Presidents Club” members (pun intended) engaged in harassing and otherwise inappropriately treating the women hostesses (who were required to appear in black high heels,and were given black dresses to wear) during their “black-tie fundraiser gala” (the beneficiaries of which have refused all money raised at the event, following the ravalations in the FT the following day).

    Your 14 year old daughter got a pretty good, and, yes, very disturbing, but also extremely accurate representation of the debauchery that still goes on in the luxurious dwellings of many of the well-heeled elite Dukes of Mantuas, not only among those enjoying their class privilege as members (pun again) of the Presidents Club.

    Opera is not Fantasyland – yet we have turned our own countries into vast colonies of the Fantasy Industrial Complex (Kurt Andersen, in his eminently important book “Fantasyland. How America went haywire. A 500 Year History”). I venture to say the UK, as the special ally (or, tongue-in-cheek, attachment) to the US is well on its way becoming the same, by means of its own as well as of American origin.

    Verdi, in contrast, shows real life, and holds the mirror right into our face. “Tutto è scritto a Verdi”, as the late Claudio Abbado remarked many years ago.

    David MacVicar understands that solid reality, and is spot on in portraying our own complicity in the sexual abuses of minors and women (and men) which continue happening even as I write this.

    So, yes, take your daughter to the production again, and tell her that this is the world she needs to prepare herself for in order to become a strong and valiant young woman fighting her oppression which Verdi and MacVicar show will be her fate if she does not stand up.

    Theater reflects the time in which it performs Therein lies its morab obligation to the public, and its mission to tell Truth to Power.

    If this Truth is too much for you to bear, I recommend you stay home and look for a serene and mildly, all trouble and inconvenience mitigating or removing, anesthethising “Rigoletto” to your own liking, perhaps inviting like-minded friends to a viewing in the comfort of your home, followed by un piccolo collazione afterwards..

    In addition, you can always retreat into one of the many great audio recordings, while watching your own production in your very own private fantasy.

    I find myself also disturbed at times by contemporary productions. After a while, when having calmed down and reflecting on the experience, I realize the production I heard and saw “did” something within me, and I am curious to know what. Which makes me want to go and hear and see it again.

    Theater that does not shake our comfort zones to the ground is not worth being called art. It is mere diversion, distraction,”divertimento”. Which is the easy highway into the realm called Fantsayland.

  • Stephen Whitaker says:

    Since the whole plot revolves around the sexual exploitation of women by men with the power to do it and get away with it , how do you explain to a fourteen years old girl why Rigoletto is cursed in the first act and why Gilda has to be kept in purdah?