The Mouths (and Not Only) of Babes

Thursday, June 16, 2011 - 06:09 PM

A two-month-old baby wears ear muffs for hearing protection while sleeping during the concert Not every two-month-old baby sleeps as soundly through a concert as this one. (OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Riccardo Muti concluded his five-year tenure as the artistic director of the Pfingstfestspiele (Whitsun) Festival in Salzburg on June 13 by playing one of his strong suits: the music of Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842). Muti has been a leading interpreter and champion of the Florence-born composer who is most famous for his opera, Medea

On the program was a wonderful piece I had never even heard of: Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn, for soprano, two tenors and orchestra. Cherubini had an unbounded respect for Haydn’s music and for the man. This piece included some of the most gorgeous and unusually modern music for violins I have ever heard. It was followed by Cherubini’s amazing Requiem in C-minor (1816).

The performance in the Felsenreitschule was held at the sober hour of 11 in the morning. Muti wore an elegant black suit as he led three young soloists (soprano Claudia Boyle; tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani; tenor Gustavo De Gennaro) the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini (founded by Muti in 2004 and named for the man of the hour), and two choruses.

Many Italians in the audience wore elegant dark clothing while Austrians and Germans were expensively-attired. One woman in the row behind me wore a T-shirt with a baby at her breast. The child could not have been more than six months old and it performed all the functions infants do, at both ends of the spectrum, audibly, effectively and with dispatch. Perhaps the mother thought a Cherubini (little cherubs) concert was meant to be for babies?

Not Your Average Nursery Rhyme

Just before Muti took the stage the baby began to cry. The mother, who also had a girl of about four in tow, rocked the baby and tried to get it back to nursing. A woman two rows in front of me was visibly agitated and began to look back, anticipating more interruptions, rather than focusing on the start of the concert. People all around seemed uncomfortable about the lactation and they too fretted that they would be disturbed. Muti and his musicians performed without a hitch, even when the baby became much noisier about 15 minutes into the program. The mother stood up, grabbed her daughter by the hand and, with baby at her breast, darted up the aisle and out of the auditorium. 

To my surprise, mother and daughter returned about 15 minutes later, without the infant.  I was put to mind of the excellent production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest now ending its run at the Roundabout Theatre in New York. In the play, the leading character has trouble accounting for his supposedly humble origins. All we know of him is that he was left in a handbag in the cloakroom of Victoria station that was carelessly given to the wrong customer. Lady Bracknell (brilliantly played by Brian Bedford in a not-to-miss performance) will have none of it. “A handbag?” I asked myself whether the mother left the baby in the cloakroom and if it will be mistakenly handed to Riccardo Muti, who will raise it to be the next Cherubini.

Clearly, the infant was too young to bring to this concert (and I wonder how it even got in...). But I did not have a problem with the four-year old being there. She was quiet and attentive. I hope her memories of the day are not of the awkwardness surrounding the infant but rather the transfixing music in a gorgeous setting among people who were profoundly affected.

This event raises some questions that I would like to hear from you about. How young can a child be to attend a concert or opera? What are the responsibilities of the parent in such situations? What are good pieces of music to engage a child with?

My view is that a child can be quite young if prepared by the parent for a special, positive experience rather than being filled with admonitions about how to behave. Obviously, talking is a no-no but that applies to grownups too. I was taken to concerts as a very small child and was entranced by the sounds but also by all those people sitting still, watching and listening. It made me want to do the same. The piece of music that first engaged me was the Haydn trumpet concerto, with its happy lilt and bright sound. It is not very long and is easily remembered. I am humming it now as I write these words.

Young people’s concerts are great if you have a maestro or other teacher who knows how to run them. Leonard Bernstein was nonpareil (I recommend videos and audios of his young people’s concerts) and Michael Tilson Thomas is an outstanding teacher now.  I do a considerable amount of teaching of opera to people from 3 to 100--they call me Freddy Operaseed--and the rules are always the same.

Get a work with a gripping, clear story with some music that is already familiar. Rigoletto and La Traviata always work. La Bohéme has long stretches that children find dull; It really is an opera for people who are at least young adults. Best to learn the story first and let the music work its magic. During intermissions and after the performance, always discuss what you have seen and heard. If the piece was appealing, buy a recording while the experience is still fresh so that the newcomer can hear the music again, as often as desired.

What are your thoughts about introducing young people to music? Please leave a comment below.

Picture: Marina Poplavskaya in Verdi's La Traviata (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

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Comments [9]


My husband and I brought our 9 month old daughter to the children's session of our local Opera, Saturday noon, 1 hour program, thinking that she was probably too young, but we wanted to test the waters... We were ready to evacuate as soon as she would agitate herself, but she behaved well throughout. We had a pacifier to help. Her attention was not that focal on the singers, but she loved the music and the narrative parts that were added to explain the piece to children, she seemed to devore the scene and happenings with her eyes, and the pictures of her in the minutes following (happy parents had to immortalize the event) show her glowing in smiles and unbounded bliss. Few pictures from her photo album show her as happy as that, indeed. When you think of how much an Opera engages the senses and how spectacular it is, you understand that even without any understanding, it is a very special treat for the infant's budding mind.
All children are different and some parents will know that theirs is ready at a younger or older age, for us, we felt we could try, owing to her prolonged calm and silence in other lasting contexts of the same duration as the representation. There were many other very young children, so we were not the only silly parents to try that. Admittedly, it was not as quiet as an adult session, but I like to believe that such event is good for children and for the future of the art. Praise to the organizers of this children's program.
Infants are not given sufficient credit for their potential to stay calm, if a parent feels that a baby could adapt to the circumstance, chooses seats readily near an exit, and don't have remorse to leave after whatever time courtesy to other listeners demands, then why not? I also strongly feel that demand to calm builds the infant's ability to remain calm

Feb. 25 2016 09:27 PM
Fred Plotkin from Zurich

Banjo, you've made my day!

Jun. 19 2011 04:55 AM

If a child can sit still and pay attention to the concert, fine. Infants are obviously incapable of controlling their bodily functions and their behavior. The right of the majority of the audience to enjoy the music free from disruption outweighs the right of a parent allow a child or infant to disturb everyone else.

Jun. 18 2011 09:20 PM

Just avoid performances where Haydn's Surprise Symphony is on the program.

Jun. 17 2011 05:37 PM
David from Flushing

Over a century ago, the fathers of a New Jersey shore community wrote that "dogs are an annoyance to everyone except their owners."

Jun. 17 2011 04:14 PM
Barbara from new york, ny

children being exposed to "quality" music at an early age ought to be encouraged; but at a volume that would not damage an infant's eardrum. live concerts are too loud. a child of around 7 or 8 who has been exposed to music early will appreciate a concert and the level of volume should pose not risk. all for breast feeding, in the privacy of one's home. more than one child will encourage talking, wanting mommy's attention if she is addressing the other child's questions or restlessness. on the other hand if a child has no exposure to the music or similar situations, it is not advised a parent bring children.

Jun. 17 2011 01:18 PM
Gary from Dallas, TX

I am now 53 years of age, grew up with British/Danish parents ( 1 of each) and in the German Lutheran church. You were taught from a very early age that little boys and girls were to behave in a certain way, especially at concerts , church, etc. and NEVER talk (now blog, text, etc) when you are to be fully participatory and engaged in whatever may be going on in the chancel or on the stage. I was taken by my parents to my first live symphony concert at 4 1/2, my first live opera at 6 (Aida at the old Met with dad's cousin, Birgit Nilsson) and have continued to this day attending and participating. I started piano at 5, organ at 7, adding voice somewhere along the way, continuing right through my years at St Olaf College, Mozarteum, grad school at the Shepherd School, Rice University. Maybe it helped that I had a lot of music around me, competent school music teachers, choral traditions from church, and, found by the piano teacher when I was about 5 1/2, blessed with perfect pitch. The musical foundations started at early childhood continue to grow through this day. Infants are definitely too young to be in attendance at a concert, 4-5 year old is the time when attention spans develop into more than a few seconds at a time. What also helped in the childhood rearing of days gone by was all of the classical music in cartoons (kill da wabbit?)

Jun. 17 2011 12:05 PM
Leslie from nyc

I have had this experience a few times. At the Koch theatre, for ballet or opera, I've had people with crying infants, and when I've spoken to the ushers or manager, I'm told that if they bought a ticket for the child, they can't refuse them! It's really disruptive, and the parents don't seem to care if they are annoying others, and ruining the evening.
I have also sat near young children, 4 yrs and up at ballet and opera, and I find most times it's actually the PARENT who talks a lot during the performance, explaining what's going on. I think if the child spoke once or twice in a low voice, I'd understand, but not when the parent initiates the conversation! Patrons have a very tunnel vision attitude about their kids, and that they have a right to be there, talking and disrupting the performance.
I think that no children under 4 or 5 should ever be allowed in to the opera, concert, ballet, etc, and older children should learn how to behave, which includes not talking, not eating, not rustling candy rappers, etc. I brought both of my now grown children to the opera and ballet in nyc, but only when they could sit still and not talk during the performance.

Jun. 17 2011 09:10 AM

I'm inclined to think that children should be weaned before attending a concert or the opera-but perhaps that baby will be blogging, 50 years from now, about early fond memories of being breastfed during La Traviata...must be more passion-inspiring than champagne in a plastic flute.

But I believe that Der Felsenreitschule-early on- presented and recorded Die Zauberflote fur Kinder-no adults admitted- unless in the company of 2 children-so that would probably exclude most of the rest your audience-excepting that little family. The Magic Flute was one of my earliest memories of a performance. It was important that myself and my siblings have music/piano lessons at an early age-including Mozart from the get-go. (and we would not even dream of not behaving in public-but that was a millennium ago.) I do believe that children can be open and eager to experience sophisticated art-even though understanding comes later. Facing a time of cuts to the humanities, whatever can be done to expose a little person to the best of life's experiences should be encouraged by all.-but maybe after a nap.

Jun. 16 2011 11:06 PM

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