The lady was sad, and MAD. (We showed the kids an opera!)

The lady was sad, and MAD. (We showed the kids an opera!) October 5, 2015

don giovanni

My kids’ experience with opera comes entirely from Bugs Bunny, and we really wanted them to branch out. So, with great trepidation, we showed them Don Giovanni last weekend … and they loved  it. More or less.

We did it in two nights. The first night, I set out some trays heaped with treats in the living room. We had brie, havarti, and honey goat cheese and three kinds of crackers, red and green grapes, mini chocolate eclairs, and sparkling cider. So the kids were all excited and cheerful, and ready to have a fancy good time. For my kids, this step is essential. If they get any whiff of high art or culture, they turn into jerks and refuse to enjoy themselves, so they need to be softened up. This is okay with me, because I, too, enjoy cheese.

We went with the Metropolitan Opera’s 2000 production with set design by Franco Zeffirelli. This production has large, clear subtitles, and all the literate kids followed the action just fine. (And the story doesn’t waste any time, but leaps right in, which is one of the reasons I chose this opera.)

The amazing thing was that Benny (age 3) picked up an awful lot, too, and was engaged throughout. She could tell that DonjiManji was one bad dude. She called all the women “princesses” (score one for the wonderful costumes, which were everything opera costumes should be) and said that Donna Elivra was “sad, and mad.” When Don Ottavio was pestering Donna Anna for the umpteenth time, she remarked, “The princess wants him to shut up.”

They laughed at the funny parts (Ferruccio Furlanetto as Leperello did a great job of making all the subtler jokes obvious with gestures and smirks) and were aghast at Don Giovanni’s wickedness.

The NYT review said that Bryn Terfel

comes to the Don with his own powerful if somewhat repugnant point of view. If the production is about period elegance, the character itself achieves a modern mean-spiritedness. Endearing naughtiness is replaced with outright sadism. This is a coldly obsessive figure for whom rape and murder is not offhand but committed with pleasure.

Well, that is the role. I don’t see how the rest of the opera makes any sense if the Don is just endearingly naughty; and his sneering callousness helped the kids to see why (spoiler) Don Giovanni goes to Hell but Leperello gets off the hook. Terfel’s power and command were sufficient to explain why the women found him hard to resist, and, as the NYT says,

this not very nice man sings like an angel. The articulation was wonderful, and Mr. Terfel commands such a depth of color that his ”La ci darem la mano” could soar out into the hall even at half voice. Volume does not necessarily conquer the Met’s bigness. Quality and focus have a better chance.

The entire cast had that focus, and no one seemed dwarfed. Here’s the rest of the cast:

Bryn Terfel (Don Giovanni), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Leporello), Renee Fleming (Donna Anna), Solveig Kringelborn (Donna Elvira), Hei-Kyung Hong (Zerlina), Paul Groves (Don Ottavio), Sergei Koptchak (Commendatore) and John Relyea (Masetto). James Levine was conductor.

Renee Fleming was tremendous. I think a few of the kids were crying when she wept, “O padre mio!” The NYT:

Fleming’s Donna Anna had unusual breadth. ”Non mi dir” luxuriated in the softness of her timbre, yet the early scenes abandoned beauty for its own sake and took on a wonderful fierceness. She is in both moods a splendid musician; the attention to rhythm, phrase length and pitch legitimized the emotion.

Quite right about the two moods. She showed real depth. Her character is naturally more interesting than Don Ottavio’s anyway, but I was really struck, in this production, by how unworthy he is of her! And what a pest, good heavens. I think if she broke a toe or won the Nobel prize for phsyics, he’d scoot over and explain that this was the perfect time for her to get over her grief and marry him.  Anyway, she was immensely present in the role, and plus, she is just so beautiful.

Solveig Kringelborn as Donna Elivira was a revelation to me. I’ve heard this role mainly played as straight up crazy bitch; but Kringelborn brought out some real pathos and humor, and avoided sounding screamy in a role that has a lot of high notes. I enjoyed every minute of her performance, and the kids loved her.

Zerlina, I was not so crazy about, and the kids had a hard time with her character. I’ve seen her played more winningly.  Her voice was crystalline and her diction was perfect, but there was no appeal in her stage presence, that I could see. It would have been fine as an audio performance, but I wouldn’t seek out Hei-Kyung Hong out for this stage role again.

Masetto did fine. Paul Groves as Don Ottavio was nicely stolid and useless, and his voice was as lovely as you could wish for his lovely arias. Don Ottavio is not actually allowed to breathe at any point, and Groves did not. The Commendatore was nice and creepy. I totally would have repented if it had been me holding that cold hand!

assuming I was still awake by the time the Commendatore showed up again
assuming I was still awake by the time the Commendatore showed up

We rented this two-disc set through Netflix, which has several Don Giovannis available. You can buy the DVD set on Amazon, or you can rent it directly from the Met for $3.99.

Very sensitive audiences will be upset with the scariness of the final scene, and with Don Giovanni’s handsiness, but it is an opera about rape and damnation, so. There was nothing so explicit that we found it off-bounds for the kids.

Next up: not sure! I think Mozart is great for kids: the emotion is so evident, and he doesn’t waste any time. Maybe The Barber of Seville.I’m sadly ignorant about Italian opera, and I’d like to remedy that. What would you suggest?





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  • Nicholas Haggin

    I want to read Benny’s commentary on Verdi’s Falstaff. 🙂

    My dad started me at age 7 with Barber and then proceeded to Donizetti with Lucia di Lammermoor. I got a dose of middle Verdi not long afterwards via Trovatore and Rigoletto, with more Donizetti in between: L’elisir d’amore, La fille du régiment, and Anna Bolena. I got to know Puccini starting with Tosca, followed by La bohème. With my own kids I think I’d reverse the order; Tosca is pretty strong stuff. Oddly enough, I never did much Bellini, but his Norma must be in the curriculum somewhere.

  • Eileen

    “We had brie, havarti, and honey goat cheese and three kinds of crackers, red and green grapes, mini chocolate eclairs, and sparkling cider. ” Wow! Your kids even snack classier than mine!

    I’m not much for opera, but I do have a cute opera story. My daughter’s (all girls) high school class went to the Met for a performance and the girls were all posting online about how hot one of the actors was. And the very next day the official twitter of the Metropolitan Opera House gave a shout out to the girls from her school who had changed the status of one of its stars to teen idol. 🙂

  • Debbie Whitney

    Barber of Seville followed by Marriage of Figaro…we like the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle versions.

  • Evan

    Ring Cycle. All of it. In one night. (I’m kidding, even I couldn’t survive that.)

    Marriage of Figaro and Barber of Seville are probably the next safest bets. The Magic Flute is a lot of fun, although being a Singspiel, it’s in German. I love Rigoletto, but you might want to find a production with an altered ending in which he does not kill his daughter. Otello’s pretty good for Verdi as well; it’s not any darker than Shakespeare’s play.

    If you want to move on to French opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites by Poulenc is sublime.

  • Mary Petnel

    Hansel and Gretel but not the awful new production – get the 1985 production with Rosalind Elias as the witch. Also – avoid Il Trittico at Convent Garden but La Scala has a lovely production of Suor Angelica – still waiting for the Met to release on DVD the lush new production. I also just saw Dmitri and Anna last Saturday in Il Trovatore. My adult self says too heavy, until I remember falling deeply passionately in love with opera at the age of 5 and Il Trovatore was the opera that fired my imagination with it’s sublime music. David McVicor’s production is a marvel.

  • ThereseZ

    Me for operetta. Gilbert and Sullivan has sweetness as well as comedy.

  • Viterbo Fangirl

    It’s an operetta, not an opera, but I absolutely LOVED Gaetano Donizetti’s “La Fille du regiment”! Make sure you get the version with Juan Diego Flórez and Natalie Dessay. (Ms. Dessay has Kathy Griffin’s face, but Lucille Ball’s comic stylings. She is HILARIOUS.) The set isn’t much to look at, but there is slapstick and silliness galore, plus some incredible notes hit incredibly well!

  • rminnema

    Erica’s dad is helping introduce my oldest son to opera now (Alex is 7). Last season we saw HMS Pinafore (G&S) live and on video, and Alex still sometimes hums tunes from it. We also saw Ariadne auf Naxos (Richard Strauss) live and on video which had a fun plot, but musically it was complex enough that I don’t know how much he absorbed. We also enjoyed watching on video Magic Flute (Mozart). This season we’re seeing Die Fledermaus (Johann Strauss) which is both tuneful and has a great plot (references to infidelity, but it’s just flirting in most productions) and Der Fliegende Hollander (Wagner) which is going to be more challenging (mostly a ghost story, so perhaps a bit spooky and some more challenging music). We decided to pass on Marriage of Figaro because it centers on droit de signeur, which is probably too much for our 7 year old. Grandpa is a major opera buff and created a list of operas to start Alex and his siblings on which I can pass along if anyone is interested.

  • Mila

    Congratulations for introducing the children to opera! I would suggest Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, which is funny as all get out. You can find an excellent version on YouTube, with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. Barber of SEville is another excellent choice.

  • Em

    Yes! Yes! Figaro! Falstaff! Barber! Elixir of Love! Die Fledermaus! Cosi! Fille du Regiment! Zauberflöte! Onegin! Tales of Hoffmann! The Merry Widow! Ariadne! Don Pasquale! Die Entführung! Everything, everything!


    My parents introduced me to opera at a very (VERY) young age. Much of the more untoward content went right over my head. I actually adored Carmen, as my mother made sure not to show me the final act, in which José stabs Carmen to death. So with some fudging of the storylines, you can probably show all manner of operas to your littlest, and potentially reserve the really brutal stuff for the older kids. Like, don’t show a precocious five-year-old Tosca, but show a twelve-year-old and then have a good conversation about it.

    E-mail me privately and I will happily recommend both operas and specific productions.

  • Rachel

    Turadot, show them Turadot and the Barber of Seville. Those two are fun. I wonder how the kids responded to the big, final scene in Don Giovanni when he’s sent to hell. I saw the opera in a movie theater that shows Fathom events with the New York Met and that scene chilled me so I wonder how they did?

    • simchafisher

      They were appropriately aghast! (the littlest kids fell asleep before that point.)
      And it actually led to a good conversation about how many chances he had to repent, and how he went to Hell because he really, truly chose it, and didn’t just accidentally slide into it unfairly or something.

      • Rachel

        awesome! That is such a chilling scene. It was also chilling in Amadeus too