Teenagers have weird obsessions, and mine was opera.
Yep, you heard that right. Opera was my special thing. It started when I was thirteen or fourteen, when my mother brought a CD of Luciano Pavarotti’s first big role, La Fille du Régiment, home from the library book sale.
If you know little about La Fille du Régiment, it’s a French comic opera by Gaetano Donizetti (“comic” in the world of opera means “no one dies”). It was, as I say, the great Luciano Pavarotti’s big break, when he starred opposite the equally great Joan Sutherland in early 1972. A match made in heaven, both singers had soaring, supple, powerful voices that no one before or since has really equaled. Sutherland and Pavarotti were an instant sensation back in the ‘70s, and it’s easy to see why. As they leapt and bounded their way through Donizetti’s masterpiece—including one aria where Pavarotti hit nine high C’s in a row—my little thirteen-year-old jaw dropped to the floor and stayed there. Love at first sight. Or first sound. Or whatever.
I just couldn’t get over it. Here was an art form that not only expected but encouraged you to belt out your feelings at the top of your lungs—where any tragedy, any passion, any emotion, big or small, was instant dramatic fodder. For a shy, quiet kid nursing an inner storm of hormonal angst, it was a perfect fit.
From La Fille du Régiment, I branched out to new classics, Il Trovatore and Carmen becoming perennial favorites. I begged my parents for recordings at birthdays and Christmas, and once I got them, I played them nonstop. Every night before bed, and during the day when I was sick (which was often), you could find me floating away on a cloud of music and melodrama. To this day, I still know Carmen pretty much by heart (don’t test me). I developed a serious fan crush on Maria Callas and Placido Domingo. I also discovered other artists, other operas, and other arias, that appealed to me in bits and pieces, though my heart still belonged to the “big three” mentioned above. I listened to live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera of New York City every Saturday afternoon; and when they staged La Fille Du Régiment in 2008, I was over the moon.
Today, opera is a bit of a dying art. If we’re being honest, the genre hasn’t done a great job reaching out to audiences that aren’t old, white, and rich. That’s sad to see. Because I believe—I truly do—that if given the chance, opera could provide other young people with the same emotional outlet and cultural education it provided me.
Recently, I was working with one of my high school students, helping with her music history homework. When the lesson turned to opera, I pulled up a YouTube video of Agnes Baltsa, one of the greatest Carmens to ever strut across a stage; and we sat and watched Agnes sing “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” on the tiny, cracked phone screen.
“What’s the story?” my student wanted to know.
I told her, and her eyes grew big. “Wait, so he just kills her?”
“Well…. yeah, that’s the story.”
“Wow,” she breathed.
She was hooked. I saw the spark in her eyes. I saw the wheels turning in her brain, as her innate, human zest for drama suddenly made this strange new art form meaningful for her.
A week later, we were in the middle of another study session when my student asked if we could play some music. I agreed. She walked her phone across the room to the speakers, and within seconds, the notes of a familiar, lilting waltz came pouring out.
It was “Près des remparts de Séville,” from Carmen.
And I smiled to myself.