Opera San Antonio Presents “La Traviata”: Young People Encounter Grand Opera

"La Traviata" Opera San Antonio dress rehearsal photo by Marty Sohl Photography | San Antonio Charter Moms

Marty Sohl Photography

Opera San Antonio is presenting La Traviata at the Tobin Center at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 13 and Saturday, September 15, 2018. My kids and I attended the final dress rehearsal, and I had the opportunity to interview stars Amanda Woodbury and David Portillo. Grand opera is a combination of so many arts, and presents such big stories on stage. It’s a lot for young people to process, but music and drama are important for a well-rounded education.

Opera San Antonio Presents La Traviata

The first production of Opera San Antonio’s 2018–19 season, La Traviata, is a grand opera by Guiseppe Verdi, and one of the most well-loved operas in the canon. Portillo described this production as “a beautiful telling, with a traditional look, and very emotionally relevant for audiences now.”

"La Traviata" Opera San Antonio rehearsal photo by Marty Sohl Photography | San Antonio Charter Moms

Marty Sohl Photography

Opera is a major team effort. The stars of this production are soprano Amanda Woodbury as Violetta, tenor David Portillo as Alfredo, and baritone Weston Hurt as Germont, and they are joined by a substantial chorus. The music is performed live, from a pit below the stage, by members of the San Antonio Symphony conducted by Francesco Milioto. Opera is also theater; the actors on stage were guided by director Garnett Bruce. The sets and costumes are on loan from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and were designed by Desmond Heeley. All of this takes place in the Tobin Center, which Portillo described as “an amazing acoustic space and a beautiful building.”

Opera Stars Talking About Music Education

I’ve written before about the importance of music education and introducing children to opera. Woodbury and Portillo graciously answered my questions about their own experiences and offered thoughts about growing the audience for opera.

Woodbury grew up in a musical family: her parents played piano and cello, and Woodbury sang in church. In our conversation about music education, she stressed the importance of learning music as a way to develop self-discipline. “I believe that learning an instrument is a big part of being educated,” she said. Learning an instrument is different from just going to school. At school, you have lots of support as you go through your work. For music, you usually get a lesson with your teacher once a week, but then you are responsible for practicing every day in between lessons. It teaches accountability.

“As a kid, I hated piano lessons, but I’m so glad I did it.” Woodbury’s older sister excelled at piano and put in lots of practice time. Meanwhile, Woodbury herself felt frustrated; she knew she needed to practice more. Woodbury asked to stop piano lessons, but her parents made her keep doing it. “They were right,” she said.

Woodbury’s advice for parents, and her own game plan as a mother: Get your kids to lessons. Do not give up on them. Show your kids that you are committed to their music education. Structure their practice time. Keep a schedule or find the time to practice every day for 30–60 minutes. Have rules like “Practice first, then screen time.”

"La Traviata" Opera San Antonio dress rehearsal photo by Marty Sohl Photography | San Antonio Charter Moms

Marty Sohl Photography

Portillo, who grew up in San Antonio, also talked about the importance of music education, especially as practiced in K–12 schools.

Portillo’s parents were both ministers, and his father worked at First Baptist Church in downtown San Antonio, just around the corner from where the Tobin Center is now. Portillo sang in church choirs and also studied music at Holmes High School in Northside ISD and at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he earned a degree in Education. He credited music professor Linda Poetschke with guiding his career, including his master’s degree from the University of North Texas and his career as a young artist. Portillo’s sister is a music teacher at a private school in Boerne, and his mom is a retired music teacher.

Portillo praised the music education community in San Antonio. He fondly remembered his teachers, including Debbie Bridges at Pease Middle School. “She was a great motivator of young people, and she wanted us to be good students of music. We were having fun but also learning discipline.” He recalled that at the time it felt like she was being “hard on us,” but later he saw the benefit of learning to collaborate. At UTSA, Poetschke’s lessons for young singers included “being good to your voice, getting up and singing solo, being a good colleague and musician, being prepared, and being flexible.”

My readers know that I often take my kids with me to work, including to dress rehearsals of operas. Woodbury is a woman after my own heart because she takes her son, now 22 months old, with her when she travels and works. Another family member—ofter her mom or her brother—usually comes along and spends time with her son while she is in rehearsal or on stage. In case you were wondering, her son naps from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Young People Encounter Grand Opera

As I mentioned, I took my kids with me to the final dress rehearsal of La Traviata. My son, F.T., is eleven years old and has been to the opera and the symphony before. Nevertheless, he had a strong reaction to the story of La Traviata. He couldn’t stop crying after Act I until he went to bed that night. The morning after, he recalled how sad the story was, then calmed himself to get ready for the school day. What is it about grand opera that causes such a strong reaction in some listeners?

"La Traviata" Opera San Antonio | San Antonio Charter Moms

Portillo said, “Every kid will react differently.” His advice was to help children pay attention to the story, noting that younger kids will need more help to understand it. For my daughter, G.N., who is eight years old, we spent some time talking about true love and how society has had different rules about marriage and relationships over time. Portillo described La Traviata as a story of love versus family obligation, and passion versus social norms.

Woodbury recalled the first time an opera made a big impression on her.  She was 15 years old, and the opera was Tosca. “I was just blown away. I had never heard something so beautiful.” She was impressed by the glamorous, heroic character of Tosca and imagined herself on stage in a role like that. (Her actual first opera was Fidelio, and it just didn’t have the same impact.)

Inga Cotton and daughter G.N. at final dress rehearsal of La Traviata Opera San Antonio | San Antonio Charter Moms

Portillo had more advice about helping kids have a good experience at the opera. “Know their attention span, how long they can sit. And have an escape plan.” For comparison, Portillo’s nephews, ages six and nine, enjoyed a 90-minute youth production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. He says that middle school and high school students, if they can sit through a movie, they should have the attention span to sit through an opera. A good way to wrap up is to ask kids, “What was your favorite part?”

Woodbury described the type of listening and attention that it takes to appreciate opera. There is a distance between the audience and the stage. Many operas are sung in foreign languages. Learning that kind of focus and mindfulness is a good skill to have in a world with lots of screens and distractions competing for our attention.

Both Woodbury and Portillo spoke about the beauty of opera and how the stories and emotions transcend time and place. Portillo said, “We all know what good music feels like.” He added, “When an opera has a beautiful story, it still connects somehow.” When people come together, whether in a church or a theater, “Music is the bonding experience, when all those people are focused on one thing. It’s transcendent.” Woodbury said, “Opera is definitely something that you want to experience live.” The elements of live music and theatrical staging can only be experienced in person. Woodbury compared it to the music flowing all over you and massaging you. And La Traviata is a great example of opera’s larger-than-life quality. As Portillo put it, “Opera is so big, so enhanced.”Woodbury said opera is special because “The stories are amazing. You can’t help but be swept away.”

"La Traviata" Opera San Antonio dress rehearsal photo by Marty Sohl Photography | San Antonio Charter Moms

Marty Sohl Photography

San Antonio is a historic city with rich culture, and a great opera company should be part of that landscape. Opera San Antonio’s presentation of La Traviata is upholding that tradition. It’s worth supporting opera in San Antonio and making the effort to introduce your kids to the art form. “Opera is the best because it brings all the disciplines together,” said Portillo.  Tickets are still available for both performances: 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 13 and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 15, 2018.

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Dress rehearsal photos by Marty Sohl Photography.

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