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Since 1997 a vital organization called Opera domani (Opera Tomorrow) has been filling Italy’s opera houses with enthusiastic school children ten years old and younger and proving that a medium too-often stereotyped as histrionic, ridiculous and, worst of all, boring, promises instead a lifetime of pleasure and beauty. Based in Milan, fifteen years ago the group began touring its productions through the northern Italian province of Lombardy, which extends from the Po River on its southern border north into the Alps. In the early 19th century the region witnessed a rich period of theater-building, and there are many fine, still-functioning opera houses whose design and décor, simultaneously intimate and grandiose, comes as a big surprise to many of these children whose main architectural experience of public entertainment has been only the local multiplex.
Now the group’s reach encompasses all of Italy. In the course of its intense, two month Spring season, Opera domani brings a new production each year to some 50,000 students and involves more than 2,000 school teachers, who are charged with implementing the group’s imaginative interactive designs. We learned from the local coordinator of the performances in Cremona, where I was lucky enough to attend a mid-afternoon presentation of Il Flauto Magico (Mozart’s Magic Flute in Italian), that Opera domani’s 2012 tour runs to 140 performances, generally with three shows a day. The theater in Cremona on the southern border of Lombardy has a rather austere neo-classical façade with columns and pediment whose gilded letters announce the date of its completion in 1830. For Opera domani’s two-day residence in the home of Stradivarius the grey stone front was enlivened by the yellow school buses disgorging seemingly endless streams of kids from the surrounding towns and villages.
The opera house’s interior follows the classic design that favors density over sprawl, the vertical over the horizontal: above the rather narrow oval orchestra section rise five tiers of boxes whose decorated frames form compartments that make them feel like small theaters. In these loges the spectators also become actors, peering out over their private proscenium when wanting to be seen by other theater-goers seated in the facing loges or in the orchestra below, or retreating to the recesses of the compartment when seeking privacy. In this way the entire theater becomes theatrical. Whether looking at each other or the stage, all spectators have a good view of the drama.
Both in the orchestra seats below and the loges above, the kids soon realized the potential of this arrangement, peering out, waving to friends, hiding in the shadows.
The interior of the opera house in Cremona has a grand effect, but by modern standards is relatively small as it seats only about 900. The theater was filled to capacity for the 2:30 show, the third of the sunny day’s three performances. The Opera domani tour has some 140 shows in total, in theaters both smaller and larger than this. Even a conservative reckoning would suggest the attendance of far more than 50,000 school children.
To do three shows a day and to keep the kids interested, Opera domani must battle the central complaint against opera: it’s too long. Large swaths of the population have the Sitzfleisch for sporting events, few for opera. (The European game of soccer runs a far more reasonable length than the truly opera-length American football or the extended pastoral idyll of baseball.)
The running time of the Opera domani productions stretches to an hour or maybe a bit more. I noticed little distraction and absolutely no boredom emanating from the juvenile throng in my vicinity. Along with expected operas like Rossini’s Cinderella, his adventurous William Tell (demanding brave cuts to get it down from four hours to one), and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel there have been more unexpected productions. My Cremonese hosts reported that while Opera domani’s overall success of boiling down full-length operas and serving them up in condensed form is stupendous, there have been a few productions that have been less than fully successful. The kids didn’t get that amoral story of opportunistic love and deceit, Così fan tutte, presented in 2008, which would have been better for a teen set swirling in hormones.
The repertoire of Opera domani’s first fifteen years has concentrated on the operatic patrimony of Italy itself, or at least works in Italian, such as Mozart’s Italian-language masterpiece. There has been a new opera, too: Raffaele Sargenti’s Lupus in Fabula of 2009. This year marked the first time Opera domani has returned to an earlier work, the Magic Flute, also done in 1998, the group’s second year. The lynchpin of the program is participation, and no opera is more singable, particularly the numbers of that kid-pleasing, bird-catching Papageno. So that the the kids can sing along all operas are done in Italian, which was in any case the usual language of the Magic Flute outside of Germany in the first decades of its European-wide reception; the first performance in England, for example, was in the “real” language of opera—Italian.
The artistic leadership of Opera domani encourages as many schools as possible to join in their program, preparing their students for and bringing them to a performance; this requires that children learn the songs they’ll join in with in the theater. Opera domani’s website provides simplified scores of the numbers in question with recordings of piano accompaniment, so that, failing a capable accompanist for the in-class rehearsals, the teacher can turn to the internet for help, or the kids can even sing along at home.
This year’s Magic Flute was brilliantly pitched towards its target age group, without ever dumbing things down and becoming simply goofy—a peril that faces even “adult” productions. During the overture in Cremona the teenage Tamino—a fine young singer in his twenties—was sent to bed ill where he began playing a video game. Projected above stage for all to see, the screen action recapitulated in the video game form of leaps and duels, the narrative of the Magic Flute itself. Drifting off to sleep as the overture ended, Tamino encountered a “real” dragon that was in fact part of his extended dream. The director Stefano Simone Pintor cast the vow of silence and trials of Tamino and his garrulous, weak-willed sidekick Papageno as a school exam with, of course, “no talking” allowed. This staging of the archetypal exam-anxiety dream was something even these kids, not fully scarred by today’s testing obsessions, could relate to. Papageno himself was a kind of multicolored Big Bird with a jaunty strut; maligned and heckled by the kids, Monostatos rather gangsta; and the Queen of the Night a tad Lady Gaga.
Opera is not only a musical art, but a visual one as well, and student participation has as much to do with learning the songs as contributing crucially to the scenic presentation. The entire theater becomes part of the action. The kids had not only learned their songs but done a series of related art projects. For the arrival of the Queen of the Night from the back of the theater stageward through the orchestra seats (to vehement hissing), they lifted three-dimensional paper stars through which they shone flashlights so that the entire auditorium became the night sky. Among the many other imaginative touches were the cardboard stalactites colored blue for the trial by ice, which the kids lifted up, trying as best they could to remain frozen. Still more ingenious were the decorated orange rubber gloves that they put on and waved above their heads, creating the effect of flames blanketing the theater, rising up its sides and licking out of the loges.
And when these hundreds of kids broke into their first song “Papageno son” (Der Vogelfänger bin ich, ja) with the Papagenos and the lively Opera domain orchestra the glorious old theater filled up with a sound I—and they—will never forget.
More than a few of these kids will have discovered through Opera domani the thrilling Italian art form of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.