A.L.L. stands for Adventures in Lifelong Learning, and I absolutely love that name! It’s a reminder of the importance of continuing to learn for as long as we live- and also that learning is meant to be an adventure. I wonder if there is anything which more clearly correlates to true happiness than love of learning? I can’t think of anyone crabbier than a young person who feels like they already know everything that’s worth knowing. . . unless it’s a senior citizen who stopped learning and growing a long time ago. But the men and women who, belong to A.L.L. are a roomful of veritable Sponges, ready to soak in everything shared with them.
The classes and programs offered to A.L.L. members cover the gamut — including Opera, which is where I come in. For the last several years, I have been teaching an A.L.L. course designed as a companion to the Metropolitan Opera High-Definition Simulcasts. At several points during the season, we will meet and I will talk about the next two or three operas that are to be presented- lecturing about each work and playing audio and video clips of some highlights. It’s an arena in which I feel SO at-home. . . because I’m smart but not that smart that I can’t keep things simple and enjoyable and accessible to ordinary folks- because for all that I’ve experienced and done, I’m ‘ordinary folks’ too.
I just began my fourth year of these courses, but this one began a bit differently thanks to a very good idea from coordinator Bev Friedrich. She thought that it might be valuable if we did an opening session which could serve as an introduction to opera for the sake of those who eye opera with grave misgivings, as though it were some sort of musical cod liver oil. I heartily agreed, with the hope that at least a couple of people might be plucked from the dark side 🙂 and enticed to give opera a try. Well lo and behold, 68 people signed up for the course- which meant that basically every single seat in the classroom would be filled- and although quite a few people in the class were regulars in no need of an ‘introduction’ to opera, there were a number of neophytes – and some who didn’t know opera from Oxydol. And my challenge was to do something which would be instructive and inspirational both . . . and I think I managed that tricky challenge pretty well.
I decided to explain some of the most basic building blocks of opera using the opera performed more often than any other- which also happens to be the very first opera I ever saw. . . Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. It proved to be a good choice because it’s a relatively simple story- poignant and moving, but with some delicious comic relief- a powerful action scene- and then a dramatic surprise- before ending with breathtaking tenderness. (The only problem with choosing this particular opera is that it tends to make me bawl my eyes out, although I managed to hold on to my composure, but with a lump in my throat the size of a cantalope.) Once we had experienced most of the opera, I shifted gears and played a moment from the last act of Shakespeare’s Othello followed by that same dramatic moment in Verdi’s Otello . . . to try and demonstrate how a story that is magnificent on its own, in its original form, can gain still more impact when transformed by a genius like Verdi into an opera.
That last part reminds me of something that I may have blogged about once before, but it’s been a long time, so I don’t mind revisiting the story. Some years ago, the Heritage program at Carthage (this is the course that all freshmen have to take) decided that they wanted to change the opera that everyone had to watch. (It had been the Magic Flute.) Although I was not a heritage teacher, I was asked to suggest an alternative, and I suggested Verdi’s “Otello” – which they ultimately accepted. But because a wide variety of professors teach heritage at any one time, from all departments, you end up with chemistry professors (and most of their non-music colleagues) absolutely terrified of teaching about an opera. So I was brought in to talk to all of the heritage professors about opera- and about Verdi’s “Otello” specifically. I thought things went pretty well- but when I asked if there were any questions, one professor – who was actually a highly-placed dean or assistant dean – asked me essentially “why in the world would you take a story like Othello and turn it into an opera?” And he asked it in a slightly whiney, exasperated tone of voice which gave the distinct impression that he had just sat through ninety minutes of sheer torture. And as this completely unanticipated question slowly registered in my suddenly shell-shocked brain, I could barely form a coherent sentence. “ISN’T IT OBVIOUS?!?!? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU!” is what I felt like saying (or screaming) although I managed a more cordial reply than that. It was only long after the fact that I realized that this was a perfectly legitimate question – and that without a doubt this particular professor posed his question in the manner of the typical student skeptic. . . and I was too proud to catch on accordingly. And what I most regret about that is that a good answer to this good question would have been just about the most valuable thing I could have shared with those professors.
That crossed my mind more than once as I was addressing the good folks in that A.L.L. class. . . and the fact that I now – all these years later – have a very good answer to that question doesn’t entirely alleviate how frustrated I am about my own denseness back then in that heritage workshop. But at least I’m doing my part to answer that question now for the operatic skeptics who cross my path. And although most of the people in this class were not skeptics at all, maybe something I said or showed them helped to reinvigorate their interest in this art form which I for one find so irresistible.
pictured above: Bev Friedrich had just finished introducing me as I snapped this photograph. I didn’t mean to catch everyone right in the midst of applauding me, but on the other hand I now have a picture to which I can turn when I need a little reminder that there are people out there who think I’m okay. (Of course, if I was truly insecure about that, I would have this blown up to life-size, converted into a mural, and plaster it up on one wall of my Carthage studio.)