Born to Love Opera

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When is an opera lover considered viable and able to function on his or her own?

Many researchers recommend playing music for babies to increase their brain functions and I certainly subscribe to that. My customary gift to new parents is a collection of CDs that includes Bach, Mozart, Bellini, Rossini, some lullabies and a selection of arias and symphonic music from across the centuries. Sometimes it is the parents who listen to this music to calm themselves down on nights when baby just won’t stop crying. I prescribe this music primarily for the newborn, but ideally it is something parents and children will share through their lives together.

One of the recordings I like to give is "Beautiful Dreamer," a collection of lullabies sung by Marilyn Horne. I am sure it is a great album from start to finish but cannot rightly tell you—I always doze off by the fifth song.

Opera in Utero

But what about music played before ethe baby is born? It seems that fetuses in the third trimester have good hearing even in the environment of the womb. They not only hear the mother’s heartbeat and the whooshing sound in the amniotic fluid in which the fetus dwells, but sounds from outside.

I can hear you asking, “What could Fred Plotkin possibly know on this topic?” So allow me to present my credentials. About 20 years ago, I knew many women who were becoming pregnant and asked me, as someone who knows about food and nutrition, what they should eat to maximize the outcomes of their pregnancies and to be mindful that the fetus requires distinct nutrients in different months during gestation as various organs and systems develop.

I conducted considerable research and consulted with the medical director of the New York City department of maternity services. After successfully feeding a control group of 16 women who gave birth to wonderful babies, I proposed a book of recipes I developed for preconception, gestation, post-delivery and breastfeeding. The title was The Nine Month Cookbook

My sympathies to any new author whose book winds up in the marketing department at certain publishers. The geniuses at my publisher decided that no one would understand the title of my book and it was renamed Eating Healthy for a Healthy Baby. Never mind that the title is ungrammatical. Chain bookstores (remember them?) thought the book was about nutrition for infants rather than women who were expecting, so it seldom was placed on the pregnancy shelves. And yet the experience gave me an awareness of, and fascination with, what happens during fetal development.

According to Seth S. Horowitz, author of The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, the ears connect to the brain in the third trimester of gestation, enabling the fetus to hear. This includes outside sounds such as the mother’s voice but also, it seems, music.

My friend Tom and his wife recently welcomed a new daughter. He told me that when she heard Salome, in utero, she responded with lively kicks. I remarked that I would worry if she eventually displays an unexplainable wish to snap the heads off of her dolls. Tom told me that she also responded, in the womb, most musically to Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, being agreeably engaged for most of the piece and then becoming more active during the great choral finale. And, apparently, this music particularly engages her as a toddler.

There are considerable differences of opinion about how old a child should be before being taken to an opera, a subject I addressed a couple of years ago. I was taken to my first opera when I was not quite three. Apparently, my father prepared me not so much for the music as for the experience and responsibilities of being an audience member. One needs to think realistically about your child’s ability to stay still and focused. This comes through training and experience. I have worked at some opera companies on early childhood opera education. Some few children are absorbed by opera from their first contact with it while others may never quite click with the art form. For most, though, it takes continued exposure.

Opera's Effect on Premature Babies

I began making notes for this article well before the April 23 broadcast of WNYC’s Soundcheck, which included a segment on how music therapy helps premature babies in neonatal units.  It should not surprise you that music therapy is found to have positive results on the vital signs, feeding and sleep in premature infants.

Host John Schaefer interviewed Dr. Joanne Loewy of the Beth Israel Medical Center’s Louis Armstrong Institute of Music and Medicine about her findings. She remarked, “We’re living in a gadget society with iPods and iPads. You walk into any baby store and there’s a million CDs, so parents think, particularly when doctors endorse CDs, that they just throw on a CD and let the baby go to sleep. What they don’t realize is that their bodies are valuable instruments. A recording can’t change meter of respiration or heart rate.”

I have no doubt that live musical performances, preferably without amplification, would have a salubrious effect on a developing fetus or a newborn, whether premature or carried to term. Dr. Loewy has collaborators who perform in the intensive care unit where premature babies are cared for. They take music, classical and otherwise, and play it at cadences that the babies can connect to and breathe with or have their little hearts beat to.

I wonder whether regular exposure to certain types of music, particularly opera and song, could favorably affect developing fetuses. I have always been impressed by the fact that, in the classical music of India, there are ragas (musical works) for different hours of the day. Morning ragas gently stimulate a certain kind of focus while evening ragas can be energetic or meditative. I would love to hear from Indian readers about whether they have noticed how their nation’s music has affected developing fetuses.

Whatever music I would choose, it would always be at a very gentle volume. I am certain that our noisy world affects both mother and developing fetus much more than has been studied. One piece I would regularly play for a fetus and its mother is the trio, “Soave sia il vento” from Mozart’s Così fan tutte, which inevitably instills peace and serenity. The same goes for “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair."

My earliest musical memory, one that dates back as far as I can recall, is Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. When I was a small child and this piece was played, I would immediately start moving to the music. I remember that it made me intensely happy, and it still does. I also recall being rocked gently to sleep while hearing Louis Armstrong sing “A Kiss to Build a Dream On." As I type these words, I realize that two of the very first works in my Proustian recollection of music in my infancy were played on the trumpet. And yet the instrument never became one I sought to play or look for in other settings.

True story: In 1986, when I was performance manager at the Met, an opera singer who was due to give birth came to hear Joan Sutherland in I Puritani, simply because she could not imagine missing a chance to hear the great diva in one of her last roles at the Met. This young woman went into labor during the second act and, as I helped escort her from the auditorium, she asked me whether a baby had ever been born at the Met. My response: “Not to my knowledge, but I am pretty sure some have been conceived here."

Please take a moment to recall your earliest memories and list them here below in the comment section.