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'La Traviata' Versus iPod Kid

Vancouver Opera has cool ways to get young people into Verdi's masterpiece. Even my daughter?

David Tracey 10 May 2011TheTyee.ca

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.

La Traviata is supposed to be a good "first opera" for newcomers. So for the finale of this Tyee series in which I've been taking a newbie to each of the Vancouver Opera season's productions, it seemed fitting to go with a teenager. Youth are the future, I firmly believe, and I might even be tempted to discuss this with one, such as my teenage daughter, if I ever get a word in through the aural defence of her iPod.

Inviting a teenager also seemed appropriate given the Vancouver Opera's campaign to convince us opera is more than an art form for rich old people. A subscription to all four productions next season can be had for as low as $130 -- less than most folks across the street paid Saturday night to watch the Canucks lose a single playoff snoozer.

The organization puts a manga-themed version of each opera's plot on its website, presents an admirable selection of daring new productions to go with the old chestnuts every year, offers a whack of community and school educational programs, and even sent director James Wright up on stage before the curtain Saturday to announce a contest to find the lowest and baggiest pants among the patrons.

Okay, I made that last one up -- he actually announced the receipt of a $1 million gift that will help nurture young artists. But the point is, Vancouver Opera is doing its part to bring new fans into the theatre. It is willing to meet the youth half-way. But will the youth respond in kind? Or to put it another way, you can lead a teenager to high-octane trilling, but you can you make her like it?

'Boundless as the universe'

My 15-year-old was willing to try, although with dwindling enthusiasm the closer we got. Half-way there Cleo removed an earbud long enough to ask, "How long will it be?" but then forestalled a lecture on the wonders of Verdi by shrugging and plugging the headphones back in. I supposed she was worried about being bored, which puzzled me because boredom is evidently the default mode when you're a teenager, so shouldn't they be used to it?

In this case, it wasn't just the difficulty of absorbing an alien art form that may have made her reluctant. It was doing it while having slept only three hours the night before. Plus she had forgotten to bring her glasses, which made reading the subtitles that explain the Italian lyrics nearly impossible.

That may be why she slumped shortly after the dreamy prelude ended and the action began. The vivacious courtesan Violetta (soprano Erin Wall) met the more socially respectable Alfredo (tenor David Pomeroy), and they quickly swore to a love "as boundless as the universe." Beautiful stuff, but I had to hear it through the muffled sighs and sniffles from Cleo which had nothing to do with the tragedy about to unfold but were rather a sinus reaction to chronic yawning.

The story itself might at least hold her interest, I figured, having compelled her to read the synopsis. La Traviata's dramatic turn comes when Alfredo's father begs Violetta to leave his son and thus prevent a family scandal that might block his other child's marriage. A girl's happy future ruined by a dominating father with control issues -- hello? But Cleo seemed absorbed instead just by the effort to remain awake.

Chalk up a new fan?

At the intermission I kept her in the game with pop and chocolate. I got her circulation going with a stroll about the lobby as we checked out the livebloggers, ogled the swells and wondered what it would be like to suddenly switch audiences with the Canucks.

I was afraid to ask if she liked the opera so far. For the final two acts, I was counting on Verdi. He has stuffed La Traviata with enough catchy tunes to make even a tin-ear walk out whistling. And he has left the door to vocal glory wide open for singers bold enough to try. Our Violetta was up to the challenge, a true Wall of sound. Even when on her death bed, a wilting flower about to fall from the effects of consumption, and all but consumed with the fading effort of a tender farewell to life, she would suddenly rebound with a few blasts of pure vocal power that might have dented the drywall at the back of the theatre. I thought Wall was great, and even felt a bit proud to learn that she's from Vancouver. 

As for my teenager, the next day I had to wave my arms to stop her from singing along to something by Rocket to the Moon so I could ask, Did it work? Did the splendour and drama and spectacle and art overcome her resistance at last? Did we just make a new opera fan?

"Not exactly," she concluded. "It's like asking Grandma whether she likes screamo. If you're not into that style of music, you're just not going to get it."

Okay, she won that round. For those, teenage or older, wanting to decide for themselves, there are two more performances on May 10 and 12.  [Tyee]

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