Grownup performances for children

[Not about language. But not about gay life or Gayland, either.]

Following up on the splendid response my grand-daughter Opal had to a performance of the Mikado (see here), her mother and I have been surveying other possibilities in the line of grownup performances (including movies) that might appeal to her.

DVDs of the Mikado (I have an old D’Oyly Carte recording and the newer Eric Idle one) turn out to be a possibility, despite Opal’s apparent rejection of the idea originally; it seems she just didn’t want to watch one at the moment we made the suggestion.

More recently, she happened upon the (not to slight the other actors, the director, etc.) Kiefer Sutherland Three Musketeers and enjoyed it immensely. Yes, there’s a lot of violent action, but it’s stylized, and anyway she’s getting good at drawing the reality/fantasy line and using fantasy material to cope with doubts and fears. And there’s a lot of stirring swordplay, swinging from ropes, and all that good stuff.

This led Elizabeth and me to delighted recollections of the Michael York Three Musketeers, while Opal worked with intense focus on drawing a family tree for herself (her real family tree, not a fantasy one, so eventually Elizabeth and I had to tell family stories).

[Digression. At some point, after E and I were finished recalling the pleasures of Raquel Welch, Spike Milligan, and others in 3M, and we had agreed that Opal would probably enjoy this splendid version, I realized that Opal had a step-grandfather and wondered if she knew that. E replied that she surely didn’t know the word (though after daughter-in-law elect, she’d probably enjoy it) but did know about Jacques.

This came from an occasion some months back when Opal was visiting at my house and for the first time paid close attention to one of the photographs in my living room. Who was that with her mother, she wondered. I told her that the man was my partner Jacques, who died before she was born, and that the baby was not in fact her, but the infant son of a friend of ours, who used to visit Jacques in the dementia care facility he lived in, to entertain him and the other residents. (Babies and dogs were big winners.) And I explained very briefly about Jacques’s and my long life together. She took all this in very gravely.

Then recently she and her mother came across the Marriage Equality Lady at one of the local farmers’ markets (she’s a local fixture). The MEL engaged E in conversation, and was pleased that she already had a stock of literature, buttons, stickers, and the like, going on to say, of Opal, something like, “I guess she’s too young to have political opinions.”

And Opal, with no coaching and no explicit preparation in the matter, said fiercely, “My grandfather and his partner wanted to get married, but they weren’t allowed to, AND THAT’S NOT FAIR.” Yes, I teared up at the story.

Kids care passionately about fairness. And they catch more than you might think of what’s going on with the grownups.]

At this point we had a list with more Mikado and the Michael York 3M on it, to which we quickly added the Errol Flynn (and Basil Rathbone and Olivia de Havilland) Adventures of Robin Hood — fabulous swordplay and more swinging on ropes! — and moved on to the Mickey Rooney Midsummer Night’s Dream (I was something of a MND devotee as a child, thanks to the movie and to the big complete set of Shakespeare that my dad had kept from college — which I still have). I also have the Peter Hall/Royal Shakespeare Company performance on DVD, but I think the Hollywood version is a lot more kid-friendly.

Plus the Taymor Magic Flute, in English and abridged (down to two hours), which arrived at my house just yesterday. I started this blog entry while watching it this morning, which explains why I took so long to finish the posting: I was transfixed by the dazzling spectacle, which also manages to balance the two sides of the work — “half mystery play, half street comedy”, as Alex Ross put it in his New Yorker rave review of the 2004 production — beautifully, without trying to resolve them. Schikaneder, the librettist and the very first Papageno, would have adored it. (And the Papageno on the performance recorded for the DVD, Nathan Gunn, is a hoot, and really cute as well.)

Of course I have Bergman’s wonderful movie of Zauberflöte, but it’s sung in Swedish, so even if you understand German and know the opera, you have to read the subtitles, which is a heavy burden for a six-year-old. And on my iTunes I have a von Karajan performance (in German) and a Mackerras performance (in English), but without the stage business they’d be hard work for a young child.

Still, there’s the question of explaining what goes on in the opera. The mystery play/street comedy part is easy, since fools, comic rustics, and the like are stock characters in Western art, but there’s the Act I vs. Act II problem, with some of the principal characters undergoing major shifts while the curtain is down. But, then, people have rolled with it for over two hundred years, so maybe Opal could just let it all wash over her the way most people do. And if she asks why the Queen of the Night turns into such a vindictive bitch in Act II, well, I can tell her that I’ve never really understood that myself, and I’ve been enjoying the opera for over fifty years.

On other fronts: everyone suggests musical comedies, but even the frivolous ones turn significantly on adult preoccupations. She’s seen the film of The Music Man and liked it well enough, but shows no particular enthusiasm for something else in the genre (Bye Bye Birdie?). If only there were a film of the original 1967 off-Broadway production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, or even of the 1999 revival, I’d go for that (and I could tell Opal that the man who wrote the book, the lyrics, and the music was a friend of mine in college); instead, we have the beloved tv specials. I have the first of these, in my box of DVDs for kids, but it’s not remotely the same thing.

19 Responses to “Grownup performances for children”

  1. irrationalpoint Says:

    My first opera was Zauberflote, with a set design by Maurice Sendak, which was total eye candy. I have no idea if there is a DVD version available.

    [(amz) Not so far as I can see. There is a 1991 DVD of a Met production with Hockney sets, though.]

    I think he also did set designs for a few Glyndebourne operas, but I don’t know which ones, and I don’t know which language they are in.

    If you’d like it to be opera,

    [(amz) We’re by no means bent on opera-going with the kid, just entertaining some possibilities.]

    there’s also Don Giovanni and Carmen,

    [(amz) Both, along with Magic Flute, on the Deily-Zwicky list of Good First Operas for anyone.]

    both of which I’ve watched with a kid I babysit in the age when he was between 6 and 8 or so at the encouragement of the kid’s parents.

    Re Shakespeare plays: Twelfth Night is a reasonably accessible one. I have a soft spot for it because it was my first live play.

    “Still, there’s the question of explaining what goes on in the opera.”

    The child I was watching with didn’t have any trouble with the Zauberflote changes. With Carmen (and, when the child was a little older, with Tristan und Isolde), there was a certain number of “Why’s he doing that? What a rubbish boyfriend!” type questions, but these are pretty reasonable reactions to the plot. Some of these can be used as springboards for other conversations — in this case we talked about sexism in the operas (yes, it was the kind of household where young children talk about opera and sexism…I guess that fits with what you were saying about kids caring passionately about fairness and picking up more than we give them credit for).

    “And on my iTunes I have a von Karajan performance (in German) and a Mackerras performance (in English),”

    I like the Klemperer recording, with Lucia Popp as the Queen of the Night.

    [(amz) I think I have that one at my other house (my library/study), but it’s not on my Tunes.]



  2. Jan Freeman Says:

    I heartily recommend Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s staging of “La Cenerentola” (Abbado/La Scala, w/Frederika von Stade), which is marvelous in itself, full of broad comedy, and easy for kids because they know the plot. My daughter used to replay it in half-hour chunks, sometimes specifying the black dress part (at the ball) or the white dress part (you know what that is). Lovely to hear and see, even on the small screen.

    [(amz) Splendid idea, Jan. Many thanks.]

    We also enjoyed “Pajama Game” a lot, but maybe more the music than the movie? I don’t think there’s much (explicit) Adult Content in that.

    [(amz) Oh, I wasn’t so much concerned about Explicit Adult stuff, but about the springs of the plot. Almost all musicals are love stories, and that’s not usually a problem — though Opal’s father reports that he was thinking of Avenue Q as a musical that maybe Opal would enjoy, until … — but their plot lines are otherwise often far from the experience of small children. Pajama Game is, after all, about — in some sense of “about” — labor-management relations. Maybe kids just overlook that stuff.

    Yes, the songs are delightful. And I even have the DVD of the movie already.]

  3. Ned Deily Says:

    More in the opera vein: the MET’s English-language version of “Hansel and Gretel” is available on DVD. There’s also one of Oliver Knussen’s opera treatment of “Where the Wild Things Are”.

  4. Alan Palmer Says:

    … if she asks why the Queen of the Night turns into such a vindictive bitch in Act II, well, I can tell her that I’ve never really understood that myself …

    That doesn’t always work with six-year olds. She’ll probably just ask again, “But why?” Adults are expected to know everything, so she thinks you are unwilling to give the true answer.

  5. H. R. Freckenhorst Says:

    You can explain that the Queen of the Night is a vindictive bitch from the get-go, and that looking sad and engaging in flattery can hide a Severely Disturbed Personality.

    Two more suggestions: My first opera (although as a teenager) was Verdi’s Falstaff, which was a wonderful introduction. I knew the plot (OK, I was a weird teenager), the scenes are short enough to keep up interest, and it’s funny to watch, even if you don’t understand moment-to-moment what’s being sung. And my son’s first live opera was Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen. Despite the animal characters, it’s by no means a children’s opera, but the animals can engage a child while the story and the character of the Forester can engage adults.

  6. irrationalpoint Says:

    Ooh, there’s a Sendak set design “Where the Wild Things Are” (opera version — Glyndebourne). How cool. Amazon has it on DVD.

  7. Marriage equality « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] my grand-daughter put it recently, Jacques and I weren’t allowed to get married — so we racked up a series of domestic […]

  8. Eleanor Houck Says:

    Re: musicals….I just saw a great performance of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, by Antietam High School students and alumni, (Berks County, PA), and wished my eight and six year old grandsons could have shared it! Very enthusiastic performance! I have noted all your recommendations for performances to share with them! They have ongoing exposure to the Arts through Primary Stages at the Yocum Insitute for Arts Education, formerly Wyomissing Institute of the Arts ( Thanks!!! Best Wishes!!!

  9. John Lawler Says:

    Have you considered Fledermaus? It’s funny, the music is good, there’s lots of hamminess, disguises, and parties, and nobody gets hurt. It’s all about seduction, of course, but so are lots of operas. And nobody gets seduced anyway. Speaking of which, how about Moliere?

  10. Greg Morrow Says:

    Your granddaughter sounds pretty awesome.

  11. Jan Freeman Says:

    Arnold, by Adult Content I meant scary stuff more than sexy stuff — I was thinking how great Oklahoma! would be except for the whole evil Jud subplot. But there’s always Fast Forward…
    (My husband and I, coming home from a performance in NY last year, amused ourselves with imagining happy endings for our favorite tragic operas. Violetta recovers! Mario’s execution is a fake after all! Lucia is just pretending to be insane, and Edgardo to be angry at her; they gallop away together at the end. It would be so easy…)

  12. Ned Deily Says:

    “Wagner for Children”??

  13. arnold zwicky Says:

    To Eleanor Houck: You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown has a special place in my heart, since Clark Gesner was a friend of mine. (He died in 2002.) At Princeton, he wrote three Triangle Shows and wrote a senior thesis on American musical comedies (his room adjoined mine that year, and I learned a lot about the American musical theatre from hearing his records and his performances of the songs; we had back-to-back pianos, separated only by a thin wall), and then he went on to write songs for Captain Kangaroo (“Most Amazing Morning”, which I can still sing, after a fashion, went on Capt. K.) and to off-Broadway, where he struck it really big, eventually, with You’re a Good Man. A recording of his cabaret songs, The Jello Is Always Red, is still in print, in addition to recordings of both versions of the Peanuts show.

    Clark’s music, like the man, was unfailingly charming and, in a sense, sweet — but not cloying and with a wry edge to it. (Clark was, I think, the most grown-up undergraduate I have ever known, while being a joy to be with.)

    Pleasing to hear that the Wyomissing Institute of Fine Arts sails on, under whatever name.

    Do you know which version of the Peanuts show the Antietam High kids performed? I’m emotionally attached to the 1967 version, but I’m not agin the 1999 one.

    Oh, your grandsons are right in Opal’s age range. They are, of course, her third cousins, since you’re my first cousin, which makes your children and mine second cousins and their children third cousins. I might try to explain this to her as she labors on the family tree.

  14. arnold zwicky Says:

    To Ned Deily: The Wagner adaptations sound delightful. As you know, Flying Dutchman was the first opera I ever heard — on the radio Saturday (Met broadcasts) when i was 7 or 8. My (Pa. Dutch) grandmother just put the radio on for whatever came by: first Baby Snooks and the Buster Brown Hour (“Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!”; “I’m Buster Brown / And I live in a shoe / [bark bark] / That’s my dog Tige / He lives in there too.”) and then eventually the Metropolitan Opera. In the end, I heard a lot of operas, and enjoyed the Opera Quiz and the other intermission features.

  15. arnold zwicky Says:

    Addendum to Eleanor Houck’s comment, for the other readers: Eleanor is the Eleanor of my grand-daughter Opal’s full name: Opal Eleanor Armstrong Zwicky (Eleanor is her middle name, Armstrong Zwicky her last name; think of it as Armstrong de Zwicky, with silent de, or Armstrong-Zwicky, with silent hyphen).

    Eleanor is the youngest of my cousin-cohort (we number 10). Her older brother Ted and older sister Wilma (both considerably older than her) were very important figures in my childhood, serving in many ways as older brother and sister for me.

  16. Magic Flute libretto « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] I mention the translation of Zauberflöte because it’s the one Julie Taymor used for her fabulous Metropolitan Opera production of the opera, which I’ve posted about here. […]

  17. Eleanor Houck Says:

    Thanks for your comments….I just found them. (by googling my name, while waiting for the ice storm coating to melt, and seeing what appears!) The Program for Y A G M, C B notes additional dialogue by Michael Mayer and additional music, lyrics by Andrew Lippa, so I will guess that it is the 1999 version. Also note that Elizabeth and my sons have Swiss 3rd cousins on FB. Thanks, also for your recent postings. Hugs to all, Eleanor

  18. Eleanor Houck Says:

    Always interesting!

  19. Saturday afternoon sickroom movies « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] energy, and sweet silliness. This was Opal’s second G&S experience (after Mikado, which I posted about a while back), so she understood that whatever happened along the way, all the major characters […]

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