Thursday, 20 March 2014

Will children ever learn about opera ?

Good article by Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph : "Will children ever care about opera?"  He went along to the latest initiative, under the auspices of ENO. Every arts organization has to do these because funding these days involves making a social case for the arts, and this venture seems well organized and earnest. Top marks for effort. Unfortunately the funding system predicates on the idea that the value of the arts can be measured. The Funding Gods need statistics to prove that the arts are worth supporting, so arts venues are forced to divert scarce funds towards ventures like this which make nice paper offerings but don't necessarily have much effect.  Trouble is, it's impossible to quantify the value of the arts.

As Christiannsen notes "one boy asked the perfectly intelligent question: “Why does it sound so posh?” To which there came no good answer." For all I know, these well -meaning efforts serve to reinforce public assumptions that the arts are not for them but for some strange elite. Even the word "outreach" implies a value judgement.  It drives me crazy when broadcasters gush like excited children peeking in on adult mysteries. But the arts are about human emotions and the expression thereof. Why should there be divisions between insiders and outsiders? We all have a right to think, to feel and to learn. Once the arts are saddled with social and cultural baggage, non-artistic standards creep in, because it's human nature to need to conform to the received wisdom of the crowd. Almost by definition, individuality and innovation go against the herd instinct. How, then, to justify the arts by terms which don't fit its unquantifiable values?

Without creativity, mankind might not have evolved. The arts represent this spirit of adventure and improvement. "Stop learning and you die", my father used to say. Maybe there are millions of walking corpses out there but as long as artists remain, we have hope.

Perhaps one way ahead is to think of opera education as a form of emotional intelligence. Music is therapeutic. Even in supposedly wealthy societies, it fills inner needs that might otherwise be hard to articulate. Funding the arts is public health for the soul.

We also make assumptions based on middle class, western models.  In other cultures, the arts have intrinsic value. In China, for example, you're not considered fully educated unless you have some awareness of the arts. Perhaps that stems from Confucian literati values, but it's so much a part of the way people think. Even if parents are poor, they want their kids to succeed and better themselves. Lang Lang's father was a musician but screwed up by the Cultural Revolution and poverty. So he pushed his son to breaking point. But Lang Lang has character and came back to music when he felt right doing it on his own terms. He's idolized not just for his music and for being famous, but because he's an inspiration. Westerners might sneer, as they do so often with Chinese achievements, but Lang Lang proves what an individual can do, despite all, odds. See "Vom Starkult zur Liebe um die Musik" on BR Klassik.

When I was  in kindergarten, we learned by what I now recognize as Carl Orff methods. I banged a tambourine tunelessly, but I got a lot out of it. Music lessons were the highlight of the week. The emphasis was on participation and performance, with theory and appreciation coming later. We even learned the rudiments of composition. I used to write mood pieces like an infant Takemitsu. Western classical music was everywhere - in the movies, in ads, in social events. It was no big deal.  If anything traditional Chinese music and opera got the highest respect. But we learned that music was an inextricable part of life. Our school used to win nearly every event in the Schools Music Festivals (which included poetry recital and chamber music).  Winning wasn't the point at all, but excellence. We'd have felt lost if we hadn't learned something and enjoyed the experience.

Below, a class of 8 year olds, singing for sheer joy. How fresh and engaged they sound . Listen to the pianist - she's not much older. Whatever these kids go on to do in life, they've learned that music is fun, and emotional responses are part of being fully human.  The conductor was my classmate Christina. While I was inept, she reached Grade VIII almost without trying, She has an exceptionally beautiful soprano voice: through her, among other things, I learned to love Lieder while still at school. But what a wonderfully intuitive teacher she is! She motivates kids with her enthusiasm. Later, they''ll go to to more difficult things but the groundwork has been laid.

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