Take Me Out to the Opera

The Washington Post's Emily Langer on why some young people love old music.Audio: Emily Langer/The Washington PostEditor: Jonathan Forsythe/washingtonpost.comMusic: "Bella figlia dell'amore" Callas, 1955Photos courtesy of: The Washington Post, AP, Anne Peterson - Virginia Opera, Washington National Opera
By Emily Langer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

My best friend recently tried to sign me up for She even drafted a profile playing up my attractive qualities (Low drama! Not prone to jealousy!) and glossing over the less marketable ones, which will remain unstated here except to note that when she typed "loves the opera," she thought better of it, backspaced and wrote "into live music" instead.

A girl whose Mr. Right is Giuseppe Verdi isn't exactly a prime cut in the meat market of online dating sites. Nor do most 20-somethings head to the opera house when they're looking for a date. Certainly no one has asked for my number at intermission, and I tell myself there's a good reason why: A 2002 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts found that only 2 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 3 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds had been to an opera in the previous year. One third of opera-goers are 55 or older, giving opera one of the oldest audiences among all the performing arts.

So I wasn't surprised to discover that the people sitting near me at a recent performance of "Rigoletto" at the Kennedy Center were on an excursion organized by their retirement home. At the end of the evening, as I started choking up at the demise of the hunchbacked jester, I wished that I'd had the foresight of the woman in a wheelchair sitting to my right, who would never leave home without a Kleenex stuffed in her sleeve. That's when I realized: Like that lady's old-fashioned habits, opera, sadly, is not long for this world.

According to the NEA study, only 10 percent of American adults say -- or, rather, admit -- that they like opera, making it the second-least popular type of music in the United States. (The only bigger loser: the choral glee club.)

That would seem to make the elderly people at "Rigoletto" pretty outmoded, and not just in their taste in music. They have more in common with Verdi than with their own grandchildren. Like the composer, who was born in 1813, most of them don't use iTunes. The maestro knew a lot about harmony but nothing about eHarmony; like him, many of his modern-day fans have never heard of online dating, despite the fact that more than a few of their grandchildren are investing $20.95 per month in finding a mate (and that's the bargain rate, offered to the glass-half-empty singles who figure they'd better sign on for a full year upfront).

Oh, the cluelessness! How out of touch those old-timers are!

The funny thing is, kids with texting-induced arthritis in their thumbs aren't the only ones singing in that chorus. Old people who got their arthritis the old-fashioned way are joining in. My great-grandma, also an opera-lover, used to tell me how relieved she was to have grown up when she did -- before "life got so complicated." By "complicated," she meant a world where some of her great-grandchildren learned the term "oral sex" from White House reporters (the others were already familiar with the concept), where our parents would worry not just about real predators but also about virtual ones, and where we would all live in fear of terrorists smiting us without a moment's notice.

Yet my great-grandma had lived through some pretty tumultuous times herself. Her first memory was the celebration in her small Ohio town on the day of the Armistice, after millions died in the trenches of Europe during World War I. Having babies at the height of the Great Depression gave her an anxiety level that no one else in our family could relate to: She kept a half-used World War II-era ration booklet in her drawer until the late 1990s. (I guess she thought that, should our family fall on hard times, those 50-year-old coffee coupons might come in handy.) I tried to tell her that my life wasn't nearly as tough as hers had been -- I had enough money to go to the opera, didn't I? But she probably went to her grave convinced that a computer virus, the kind transferred from keyboard to fingertip to internal organ, would take me out before I'd had a chance to live as long as she did.

My great-grandma was one of the many old-timers -- that is, anyone over 35 -- who seem to be convinced that, in the brave new world of the 21st century, their relevance is fading, if not already gone. For the first time in history, teenagers can say to their parents, "You're, like, so lame," and deep down, the parents may wonder whether their kids are right; after all, lots of them don't know what it means to get "poked" on Facebook. And if parents are that out of touch, then what use is there for grandparents -- or anything that predates Windows 95? What could something as old and uncool as the opera possibly have to offer?

Opera houses everywhere are doing their best to attract younger audiences -- hawking discounted tickets and free lectures for newcomers, inviting audiences to dress down -- but they're fighting an uphill battle. The high notes are still too high, the costumes too stuffy and the plot lines a tad unconvincing (consider the moment in Verdi's "Don Carlo" when the mezzo-soprano curses her own beauty in an aria called "Oh fatal gift").

But if you strip away the frilly fashions and the showy displays by ambitious tenors, what's left is a bare bones look at life. I always walk out of the opera house with some surprisingly useful lessons: Think carefully before fighting something bigger than you because it's often a losing, if worthwhile, proposition; if you're in trouble, consider what you did to put yourself there; and don't bother trying to make someone love you if they don't, because it's not going to happen.

Come to think of it, 88 years of living taught my great-grandma much the same thing. And on more than one occasion in my post-9/11, Internet-age life, she and the opera have turned out to be right. "American Idol" and "Grey's Anatomy" have proven less helpful.

It's too bad that the bel canto composer Vincenzo Bellini didn't live long enough to see the rise of YouTube. He would have loved a certain user who goes by the name of HighNotesRenaissance. This person, who claims to be 25 years old and living in Italy, managed to look past the tenor's dishtowel-sized lace collar and posted the following comment on a recording of " A te, o cara," a love song from Bellini's 173-year-old opera "I Puritani": "A friend of mine told me that 'A te o cara' seems to have been written for him. And I AGREE, of course!"

HighNotesRenaissance, are you out there? We have so much to talk about -- like what Bill Clinton might have to say about Don Giovanni's lascivious pursuits, or what Donald Rumsfeld might think if he heard Norma pleading with a goddess to temper the warmongering Druids, or whether Ashley Alexandra "Kristen" Dupré believes that the courtesan Violetta could have cut it in Room 871 at the Mayflower Hotel.

But in life, as in opera, people aren't always who they say they are. HighNotesRenaissance could be a 75-year-old retired podiatrist named Dick who trolls YouTube for Lawrence Welk videos when he's not listening to the opera. Or maybe it's a woman. I don't know. But this much I know for sure: HighNotesRenaissance is on to something. Because certain things never get old.

Emily Langer, the Outlook section's editorial aide, recently purchased a season subscription to the opera.

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