My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Finding Don Giovanni in a high-school boy

© Nikki Zalewski -
How do you get high-school vocalists to sing opera with enthusiasm when they don't even like opera...or classical music?  It's the type of challenge I thrive on, even if it is exhausting and frustrating at times.  The moments when it actually clicks, even if just for a few minutes, makes all the brain gymnastics, prodding, and cheerleading worth it. 

Last Friday I had one of those moments...and this time it was also hilarious for everyone involved.

The opera scene in question: the duet, "La ci darem la mano," from Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni
The victims with whom I was working: 4 high-school vocalists
The attitude: Not good

I knew I had an uphill, but tantalizing battle to fight.  They walked into my studio in a cloud of negative comments:
"Awwwww, I really don't like this piece." 
"I don't like singing in Italian."
"This is not my type of music."   
With those words I was ready to take up the challenge.  Picking two of the kids, I had them begin the famous duet in which Don Giovanni attempts to seduce a woman engaged to another man,  Zerlina.  Their performance was, not surprisingly, completely uninspired.  There was no inflection in their voices, no emphasis on important words...I wasn't even sure they had a clue about what was supposed to be going on in the scene.  When we stopped I looked at the other two singers who had been listening and asked them, "Well, were you convinced?"  They shook their heads and gave the thumbs-down sign.  After a few questions that didn't really lead anywhere I finally said, "Don Giovanni is pompous ass!  I know this is going to be a stretch for you but..."

All four kids broke into laughter and shook their heads.  

"What?" I innocently (or not so innocently) asked.

"He IS a pompous ass!"  they chorused.

I looked at the Don-Giovanni-don't-wanna-be-at-the-moment and he had this smirk on his face.  It was really quite stunning.  He then nodded his head in agreement with the others.  

"Well then..." I said.

We tried the beginning of the duet again.  This time our young Don Giovanni had this unbelievable look in his eyes, and with transformed body language he literally made our Zerlina blush and squirm.  He even made me squirm and I was supposed to be busy playing the piano!  Don Giovanni and Zerlina began improvising some basic staging in a very natural way, their words sounded like Italian, and there was life in their words.  When I looked over at the other two singers they were grinning from ear to ear and when we stopped where we had stopped previously we all erupted into cheers and thumb-ups.  Our transformed Don Giovanni looked, well, very much like his character - he knew he had nailed it.  When asked what he thought he responded, "It felt great knowing I could just be me!"

There you have it!  I have to admit  it does make me raise an eyebrow to think that this young man's natural character fits Don Giovanni's all-too-well but it certainly serves him well while playing a character like this one! 

As for me, is it any wonder I love my job so much?  In 15 minutes my studio was transformed from grumbles to their parting statement - "That was really fun - thanks!"  With the prospect that these kids, who don't find themselves regularly selecting opera tracks on their iTouches, might actually start to have fun with opera, I certainly can't complain about my time spent on this musical battlefield.

So who's next?  I'll gladly take on another challenge!

PS - Please understand I don't usually talk to students the way I did in this coaching.  I did so only to shock the kids a bit and to get them listening to what I had to say.  


  1. It's a big transformation I think for students to learn that yes, you can have an OPINION about things. And it's okay if that opinion is reflected in your performance. It's scary to put that out there, but the alternative is timidity, which is never good for a musical performance (unless it's warranted for the character).

    1. True, Janis. And not to get preachy or anything, but I think it's especially difficult for kids these days to connect with that concept thanks to much of the education that seems to be prevalent. The kids generally want to know the one right way of doing anything so they can please their teachers, get the A, get into a good college, and so on. Doesn't seem to promote a whole lot of critical thinking, soul-searching, or risk-taking. I'm having a lot of fun with these kids asking questions that make them think but that don't necessarily have one right answer...or any right answer, for that matter. We'll see how it all plays out. Only a few more days of camp left.

      Thanks for commenting!