In an argument already almost two centuries old, some people claim that classical music is stuffy, old fashioned, and appeals only to a cultural elite. Popular music is new, up to date, and broad based. Opera seems to appeal only to a subset of the aging classical music crowd. School children know nothing of such philosophical arguments. They only know what they like. They like classical music, and even opera, just fine.
I have written several posts about distinctions between classical and popular music, but I’d like to use “popular” in a broader sense for a while. It’s something a lot of people like. The Beatles are popular. Al Jolson used to be popular, but discovery of a new picture of him won’t cause the same stir as a 50-year-old picture of the Fab Four recently did. In classical music, Beethoven has always been popular. Schoenberg never was.
And opera? When flame wars over the relative merits of classical and popular music first erupted in the early nineteenth century, contemporary Italian opera (new works by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti) were definitely at the popular end of the spectrum in Europe.
In England and the US, it was only popular music when translated into English and with the recitatives replaced with spoken dialogue. Early attempts to establish a permanent theater for Italian opera in Italian in New York foundered on a snobbishness unknown in Europe.
The New York upper crust sought to reserve this more sophisticated entertainment for itself. It built theaters in neighborhoods that made the lower classes uncomfortable. It put ticket prices beyond their reach. The effort soon failed. There weren’t enough rich snobs to support such an expensive art form.
At least partly for that reason, New York’s earliest Italian opera companies went out of business almost as soon as they opened. Meanwhile, when opera companies toured the rest of the country, a mixed class of people thoroughly enjoyed their performances of opera in Italian.
P.S. 58, Brooklyn, 2011
Music education has taken a beating in this country in recent decades. Programs in many schools have been gutted or eliminated altogether as a misguided cost-cutting effort.
A few generations ago music educators generally disapproved of popular music and sought to educate children’s tastes. That worked about as well as the older generation of rich New Yorkers trying to keep opera to themselves. Popular music is now everywhere in such school music programs as still exist. Not every school gives their children much chance to experience classical music at all.
One school that still fosters an appreciation of the arts is Brooklyn’s P.S. 58. In 2011 music teacher Stephen Cedermark earned a Blackboard Award. Among other things, his classes of kindergarteners through second graders enthusiastically learned to sing Italian opera in Italian. Not only that, they learned the meaning of the words.
Cedermark points out that opera combines singing and stories. Children love both singing and stories. Why would they not love the combination?
The same article that announced Cedermark’s award mentioned that he was on the lay-off list for the end of the year. Why is that not surprising?
I suppose he wound up keeping his job. The NBC Nightly News broadcast of December 22, 2012 featured Cedermark’s class as they learned a number from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, attended a dress rehearsal of the opera at the Metropolitan Opera, and sang for the cast back stage.
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Singing His Praises / by Linnea Covington. Blackboard Awards.
Opera on the Road: Traveling Opera Troupes in the United States, 1825-60 / by Katherine K. Preston (University of Illinois Press, 1993), pp. 99 ff.
Photo credit: Some rights reserved by stevendepolo.