A Three Year-Old's First Opera
When we learned that San Francisco Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute would be sung in English, we decided to bring our grandson Nathaniel to his first opera. He would be 3 years, nine months old by the time of the opera and the question was: how do we prepare him so we would all have the best chance of a positive experience?
First, a bit of background. Nathaniel has grown up playing piano with me. He loves to sing and for his third birthday, he briefly sat in on a rehearsal of the Cypress string quartet. After that, he decided he would play violin (causing some sadness on my part, as I still have visions of playing four-hand piano with him). But above all else he likes to wear his “fancy clothes.” An opera would give him everything: fancy clothes, singing, violins and more.
Three months before the opera we bought him the story book The Magic Flute by Kyra Teis. We read it many times and each time asked him which character he was. He initially chose Tamino, the brave prince, but others came up as well. After a while he would mostly choose Papageno, the bird catcher.
He knew the characters well and knew the basics of the story, so it was time for him to learn the music. Listening to a CD of the opera sung in German was not much help. My piano teacher discovered a piano music book The Magic Flute by Hans-Gunter Heumann with simplified arrangements of most of the arias.
A few weeks before the opera, I recorded the music on the piano and my wife Amy recorded the words and ideas in the aria. We created a CD of the words and music and mailed it to Nathaniel and he listened to it a lot.
The day before the matinee, Nathaniel came to our house for a sleepover. We played the music “together” on the piano and Amy got out her flute. We watched all the videos on San Francisco Opera’s website. In particular, the "Puppeteasers" video was perfect as it described the story in a fun way. He watched all of them but returned to the Puppeteasers again and again.
The day of the opera finally arrived and we took our seats. We decided on a Box so he would have an unobstructed view and so that if we needed to step out, we could do it without creating a lot of fuss. We walked around the whole opera house and especially enjoyed visiting the orchestra while they were warming up in the pit. Nathaniel saw trombones and tympani for the first time.
While he had his own seat, Nathaniel much preferred to be in someone’s lap. He was clapping, watching, and for a few moments was a little overwhelmed by the experience. But by intermission, everything was going well. Our box-mates enjoyed having him there and the second act went well, too.
After the performance, Adler Fellow Jacqueline Piccolino (who played the First Lady) invited us to visit. While we were talking with her, the “Three Boys” walked by! On the way out, a very generous stagehand invited us to see the set and Nathaniel took his photo with the two-headed serpent.
As we left the building we saw Efraín Solís, who played Papageno. He generously chatted with Nathaniel. Since the performance, Nathaniel regularly asks for the “Wife Song” (i.e.“Papagena!”) near the end of the opera and he always asks for “the little boys.”
After the opera, we learned that the typically recommended age for The Magic Flute is eight years old. However, with the right opera and some fun preparation it certainly worked with a musically-oriented three year-old! Of course what really made it work was the quality of the San Francisco Opera performance, the sets, the great English translation and the friendly cast and stage crew. Thank you San Francisco Opera!