Sunday, January 28, 2007

Handel's Agrippina at the Virginia Opera

How do you take a seven-year-old to see baroque opera? Don't listen to the lady in the seat behind you.

This afternoon we took Benny to see the Virginia Opera production of Agrippina at the Harrison Opera House. Benny is seven years old. The opera is over three hours long. And we all had a great time. So, how did we accomplish this?

1. Good seats. You won't save money sitting in the nosebleed seats, because kids need to be near the action, or they drift. On the other hand, you don't want to be *right* in the front, because you might need to vacate. We had seats in the middle.

2. Listen in advance. We bought the CD weeks ago and have been listening in the car. Agrippina is a fairly obscure opera (I think) and we didn't actually get a complete recording, but by the time we went to the show, Benny (and his two-year-old sister Sadie) could sing a few of the arias, and the music had a familiar sound. I bet that before we go to the Pirates of Penzance in April, we know all the songs! :D

3. Know your characters. The plot of Agrippina is extremely complicated, and also based on sexual intrigue and political power plays. I knew I was not going to be able to tell this to him as a bedtime story. However, knowing the characters goes a long way.

4. Plot with stickers. Before we left, I broke down the plot into many bullet points, and printed out each act on a separate piece of paper. Then, I put this in a binder and we took it to the opera house. As each plot point rolled by, we put a sticker beside it, including a giant sticker for the end of each act. If you're taking your kid to see Agrippina and you want my kid-friendly plot breakdown, leave a comment with your email address and I'll send it to you.

5. Pay no attention to that lady behind you. If your kid is actually misbehaving, take him out. Better yet, if he's likely to misbehave, don't take him to the opera. But, be aware that some people will always be crabby. The lady behind us today was objecting to Benny periodically stretching and putting his arms up in the air. She actually would reach forward and push his arms down. She also kept saying this loudly to her husband (who was sitting behind Dan): "Well, I don't know how you can see ANYTHING past that MAN and his HEAD." As if... Dan had installed an extra large and tall head just to prevent anyone from seeing the show. The husband patiently repeated: "You are talking so loud that they are going to hear you." Now, I'm the first person to acknowledge when my child is being disruptive, but I had to place this lady's views into context. She was also uset that my husband brought his head to the opera. Okay, he's six feet tall, but that's not freakishly huge or anything. She should have been happy she was sitting behind a seven year old. Even one with spiky hair.

6. Aerobic intermission. We went up and down stairs, back and forth, and all around. And to the bathroom, natch, after 80 minutes in the first act! Note: The cappuchino at the Harrison Opera House is actually really good.

7. Life Savers. If you're going to sneak snacks into the opera, don't sneak anything that rattles in the bag or crunches in the teeth. We took Life Savers, which neither rattle nor crunch, especially when you tell the child they are magic medicine that will help him not wiggle for as long as he holds then on his tongue.

8. Sense of humor. Inevitably, there will be some kind of loud outburst, like the child saying cheerfully, "I'M DONE!" right in the most emotional song, when the orchestra pauses, and the character on stage is rending his garments. It is okay, nay, it is required, that you just laugh and move on, during moments like this. Chances are the people around you are mildly amused like you are, not righteously annoyed like you're imagining they are. And remember, that lady in the row behind you disqualified herself as a judge of polite behavior when she loudly observed that your husband had an opaque skull.

9. Beautiful sets. The visuals in this production of Agrippina were really gorgeous. Not only were they interesting for me and my husband to look at, they were very engaging for Benny. It's amazing how much thought and work goes into the lighting, the set design, and just planning the way the characters will move on the stage. I'm not a theater person, and I don't know the right terminology to describe what I'm talking about, but there was a lot to look at, and that really helped Benny (and the rest of us) enjoy the show.

10. Opera stars. Sujung Kim is absolutely riveting as Agrippina. It was hard to look away, when she was on stage. And Jane Redding, as Poppea, was hilarious, even to Benny who didn't understand (I hope) the flirtations and machinations going on. I'm sorry, male opera people, but the ladies just blew it out today, and the guys didn't particularly impress me. EXCEPT FOR: The silent chorus. Again, I'm not an expert and I don't really know how to describe this, but there were six guys in tuxedos who never said or sang a word, but just about stole the show with their subtlety, their symbolism, and their antics. I *really* enjoyed those guys.

So, that's how we did it -- by the skin of our teeth and with some tolerance and planning. You might ask... *but why???* Isn't the opera something grownup that you do without kids, because it's nice to be out without them, and they don't appreciate it anyway? Hmm. You would understand our motivation if you heard Benny answer the question: "What was your favorite part of Agrippina?" His answer: "It was all my favorite. I loved it. I just loved it."

We're also going to the Family Day showing of Pirates of Penzance. Do you have any tips for surviving the opera with kids? I would love to add them to my arsenal!


  1. kimmhunt6:27 PM

    Haven't been to an opera with my kids, but we did go to the symphony.

    My 4yo enjoyed the music, but only watched intently for about 30 min.
    I brought a sticker book for her. I patiently peeled stickers and admired her amazing choice of placement for much of the performance. But she was fine and enjoyed it. Especially all the attention she got during intermission from the elderly "regulars."

    For my 7yo, I brought markers and paper. She drew what she heard and saw. We have some really cool pictures of Romeo and Juliet kissing with the symphony behind them (it was music from Shakespeare), and of the different musicians and instruments.

    She also spend quite a bit of time "conducting" from her seat. We were in the nosebleed section and had no one directly behind us, so that was fine.

  2. I've taken my daughter to the children's symphony (lasts about an hour), children's operas since she was about 3 or 4 (modified versions that last 45 mintues), ballet (full length since she was 4) and to one opera - Hansel and Gretel. I really liked your tips! Especially about getting some exercise during the break.

    I think it is important that your child know the story (at least the basics) ahead of time. And, I like your sticker idea!

    I am contemplating taking my daughter to her 2nd opera in a few months - A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is a story we studied last year, but we'll probably revisit it if we decide to go.

    Oh, and my best advice is to find children's productions if possible! It's a great start.