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Arts and Culture

'La Clemenza di Tito' and the 12-Year-Old Canadian Male

If your son is like mine, pick a first opera with plenty of 'plot twists.' And 'flames.'

David Tracey 7 Feb

David Tracey is, well, let's just go ahead and call him the Tyee Opera Critic. And he enjoys bringing a guest who might not normally attend the opera.

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Women sing male roles, avoiding (don't worry, son) the whole castrati business.

The theme of political power drives La Clemenza di Tito, and what better timing could the Vancouver Opera want? In Tunisia, a dictator has just fallen after an uprising sparked by a vegetable seller. Egypt is now pulsing with a popular revolt, and the revolution is being televised (see Al Jazeera English for the live stream).

In transforming times like these, one can only wonder what must be going through the head of an autocratic, uncaring, elite-pandering ruler who was never elected by a majority of his own people. But enough about Stephen Harper. We're concerned here with power in the general sense, and how best to use it. For example, and perhaps a glimpse into dictatorship of another stripe, the power of a parent over a child.

A friend with opera seasons seats for the family tells me his kids are into it. Mine, not so much. A conversation with my 12-year-old son about the current production went like this:

Me: "So you might have heard I've been reviewing operas for the Tyee."

Tyrus: "I'm not going with you, Dad."

I probably could have used force, I'm still bigger than him, but a wise ruler knows how to convince his subjects to make proper decisions themselves. We settled on La Casa Gelato. Two scoops.

Although his mother did make him put on a clean shirt, and we'd earlier agreed that noisy snacks like potato chips might not be appreciated, we had no real ground rules going in. I wanted it to be an honest assessment, good or bad. I told him he didn't have to like it. He just had to give it a fair shot and tell me what he really thought.

As we picked up our tickets on the way in I asked for a "before" impression. What preconceptions did he have about live opera?

"Long and boring," he said.

Nothing in the prelude appeared likely to soften that opinion. He listened gamely in the dark for a few minutes, but then the music seemed to repeat itself with a soporific effect. His shoulders slumped. I caught him looking around at the rest of the audience, perhaps searching for an ally, but if so he would have caught nothing but attentive gazes forward.

Mozart in a hurry

Then the curtain went up, revealing a Roman fake marble wall that would serve for the rest of the evening, presumably without straining the budget, and he gradually sunk deeper into his chair. Eventually he did sit back up and even lean forward, but it was only to hold his head in his hands and stare at the ground between his feet.

I briefly got his focus back by explaining how the women singing male roles would have been men in Mozart's time, men with something missing. He had never heard of castrati.

I hadn't explained that La Clemenza di Tito was not one of Mozart's more popular operas. He apparently knocked it off, during assignments for more memorable works like The Magic Flute and The Requiem, in what some believe may have been as little as 18 days. He passed on to a pupil the work of writing the recitative (when action and most of the music come to a thudding stop so characters can talk-sing narrative passages) as well as some of the arias.

I also didn't mention that this opera was written to commemorate the coronation of Austrian emperor Leopold II as king of Bohemia (a benign type who, talk about power, was also the brother of Marie Antoinette). So small wonder the art of the fully-drawn character arc, a Mozart specialty, this time seems to fail him. Here Tito goes from a kind, compassionate and merciful ruler to (spoiler alert!) a kind, compassionate and merciful ruler.

The crawling plot and the only-sporadically beautiful music both came to life at the end of the first act when one of the characters picked up a knife and the capitol was set on fire. Love and intrigue and murder. Now we were getting somewhere. Maybe we were in for a ripping finish?

'I guess it was pretty good'

I'll let Tyrus be the judge. He came in thinking opera would be long and boring. What did he think going out?

"It can be long, but also interesting in some parts. It probably depends on the opera. It can be long and boring, or fun and interesting. This one leaned more towards the good side.

"I thought the beginning was weird. The crowd went silent and they played that intro for 10 minutes with the curtains pulled down, which I thought was kind of pointless.

"Then the curtain came up and I heard the first singer. I don't know why but I thought of a rooster. It was kind of funny.

"I found it kind of boring at the start. The singers never really belted out the voices until later. They started doing it at the end of the first act. That was pretty interesting because I didn't know people could sing that loud.

"The background was kind of interesting when there were flames, but other than that it was pretty much the same thing which was kind of dull.

"The music was okay. I guess it was pretty good."

"The story I only got from the synopsis in the guidebook because I didn't bring my glasses and couldn't read the subtitles. I don't know. There were not enough plot twists for me.

"Would I go again? Um... maybe, depending on the opera.

"Would I recommend it to a friend? I think not. Not my friends. They're not into that kind of stuff."

Remaining performances on February 8, 10 and 12.  [Tyee]

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