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Baby steps

I’m particularly looking forward to the broadcast of The Magic Flute this week: Mozart’s masterpiece was the first opera I saw, though it wasn’t live but a TV broadcast of the delightful filmed adaptation Ingmar Bergman made in 1975. It is widely acknowledged as one of the most successful filmed operas (and, for that matter, plays) ever, and may well be the perfect gateway film to the perfect gateway opera.

What’s gateway art? Basically, it’s an easy first step into opera, ballet, art film or avant-garde theater, the kind of thing you should start with if you’re either young or older but willing to explore unknown territory. (And don’t think that gateway works are simplistic or artistically inferior. Not only did seeing Bergman’s movie in my early teens start me on a lifetime of loving the arts, but it’s an enduringly charming, poetic, incredibly multilayered masterpiece.)

When it comes to opera, you don’t need to know that much about it to appreciate gateway works, which, roughly speaking, tend to have a zippy pace, an easily understandable narrative arc, a tuneful score with well-defined arias and characters one can identify with. In other words, Tristan und Isolde and Die Frau ohne Schatten aren’t gateway operas; The Magic Flute, La Bohème and Tosca are. (And for some, the gateway wasn’t an opera per se, as Richard Speer pointed out in a Salon article about his discovery of Luciano Pavarotti at age 12; still, the idea is the same.)

I believe it’s really important to expose kids to the arts early (something Jennifer has discussed here on the SundayArts blog as well); if you didn’t have that opportunity growing up, it’s incredibly enriching (not to mention fun) to catch up as an adult, plus you now have a somewhat larger disposable income. At the same time, the worst thing you can do if throw someone straight into the deep end of the pool: traumatize newbies, no matter how old they are, with Wagner and you may never lure them again to the Met or PBS. Similarly, don’t show Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore to the unprepared film fan when an early-period Godard is much more accessible; don’t send a theater virgin to a Richard Maxwell show, but direct them instead to something by the kinetic, multimedia-savvy Builders Association.

That’s why it’s important to choose a good entry point, and why The Magic Flute is pretty much ironclad. While I may have my own issues with the Met’s Julie Taymor staging (so please watch on Sunday, then come back here to argue its merits!), it has charmed thousands of viewer of all ages since its premiere in 2004. And that is precisely the point: Who knows how many first-timers ended up going back for more, perhaps checking out Hansel & Gretel for the lil’ ones, perhaps graduating to the vastly entertaining Le Nozze di Figaro or, in yet another step, that Wagner dude.

So what I’d like to know now is, What was your gateway drug? Which one would you recommend?

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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