Culture and the Old and the Young

Last week, I attended a university performance of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, considered by most scholars in the field to be one of his finest.  It was a university performance, but a good solid university performance with a full orchestra. An opera of this scale isn’t often performed in small university towns, especially ones in rural areas… for many reasons, and it was an ambitious performance with slightly “edgy” and colorful [but not scandalous or skimpy] costuming that evoked the feel of the period, but did not follow it precisely.  The opera was presented uncut, and with no “modernization” except for the not-precisely period costuming… and no special effects except for standard theatre lighting.

I’m not about to summarize the plot, except to say that it’s Mozart and Da Ponte’s [the librettist’s] take on Don Juan/Casanova, and that in addition to the glorious music, it’s a morality play, in that Don Giovanni gets what he deserves in the end. It’s a fairly long opera, if not nearly so long as Wagnerian operas, with two acts and an intermission running over three hours. It was also presented in two versions, alternatively with an English version on one night, and the original Italian on the next.  The audience, as it usually is for university productions, consisted of university students, some faculty, some high school students, presumably musically inclined, and a number of townspeople.

Now… I’ve more than occasionally noted the short attention span of all too many young people, particularly those of college age, and I’ve also expressed concern about their tendency to be, shall we say, occasionally somewhat less than ethically rigorous in certain areas. So… I wasn’t exactly shocked when, after intermission of the opening night of the English version, I noticed that several previously occupied blocks of seats were vacant as the orchestra began to play the opening to the second act.  Except then it struck me that those who had left were not college students, or high school students, or faculty, but older townspeople, many of whom are regarded as more “culturally” inclined.  They were the ones who either had the short attention spans, the lack of interest in a morality-based opera, the distaste for non-traditional costuming, or were bored by the glorious, but definitely long and intricate music. This is, alas, not something new. Reportedly, even the Emperor Josef, who was Mozart’s patron, complained that his operas had “too many notes.”

What was also most encouraging was that, when the English version of the opera ended, the students were the ones who leapt to their feet and gave the cast a standing ovation… and that’s something I’ve seldom seen in over twenty years of watching university opera programs. Incidentally, the music and theatre faculty who saw the opera thought it was a very good and solid performance (although they felt that the Italian version performed on Saturday was close to outstanding).  And, not surprisingly, the younger members of the audience actually raved about the costumes.

Watching all this not only gave me hope, but confirmed a number of things, at least for me.  First, for music and the arts to reach and move people, especially young people, doesn’t always require all the technological bells and whistles.  Second, closed minds and short attention spans exist in all age groups.  And third, any politician who thinks the arts should be eliminated from education has no business in politics and should be removed forthwith.


3 thoughts on “Culture and the Old and the Young”

  1. Esquire says:

    hear, hear!

  2. Wine Guy says:

    Never underestimate the power of seeing your friends and peers create excellence.

    As for older people leaving, the reasons are as myriad for them as they are for younger people.

    Congratulations to your wife and her students.

  3. Brian Kelman says:

    The greater my emotional engagement or involvement in the subject I’m watching or listening to, the longer my attention span.

    Due to excellent training and the talent of the performers, ‘the gift’ of engaging the audience emotionally appears to have been on full display here. There is always something magical about establishing a symbiotic relationship with one’s audience (or most of it in this case). When effectively giving the audience the emotion of the performance, the audience’s reception and the projection of positive emotional energy back to the stage, can inspire the performers even further. The standing ovation, even though it was led by friends and peers in the audience, was the final spontaneous release of this emotional energy. Based on the description above I suspect these dynamics were present.

    Congratulations to everyone.

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