A night to remember at the Opera, complete with a ghost

In the pitch-black auditorium of Rome's Teatro Costanzi, a high-pitched wail rose from the upper galleries. Dozens of torches lit up, their beams crossing wildly, searching for the source of the sound.

The rays of light focused on a ghostly figure: a slender, dark-haired woman dressed in white, moving to a funereal rhythm and singing plaintively. In the audience, about 130 children, ages 8 to 10, let out screams, gasps and a “that's not real.” Many shouted “Emma, ​​Emma”.

The children had just been told that the Costanzi, the capital's opera house, had a resident ghost. No, not that. It is said that this was the spirit of Emma Carelli, an Italian soprano who directed the theater a century ago, and she loved it so much that she was reluctant to leave it, also dead.

“The theater is a place where strange things happen, where the impossible becomes possible,” Francesco Giambrone, general director of the Costanzi, told the children Saturday afternoon when they arrived to attend the “we know the theater” pajama party. .

Music education is considered a low priority in Italy, the country that invented opera and gave the world some of its greatest composers. Many experts, including Giambrone, say their country has rested on its laurels rather than cultivating a musical culture that encourages students to learn about their illustrious heritage.

With little support from schools and lawmakers, arts organizations like Costanzi have concluded that it is up to them to reach young people.

Giambrone sought to dispel the opera's stuffy image by abandoning the genre's strict dress code. This change, like the sleepover, is part of his effort to make opera, often seen as an elitist, intellectual and abstruse art form for the initiated, more familiar and accessible, especially to children.

“We believe that theater should be for everyone and that it should make people feel at home,” Giambrone said in an interview. Hence the decision to welcome the boys there to eat, sleep and play. “Once a theater is a home, it is no longer something distant, something a little austere to fear, or a place where one feels inadequate,” he said.

«There is a lot of talk about Made in Italy, but there is real shortsightedness towards our musical heritage, envied all over the world», said maestro Antonio Caroccia, professor of music history at the Santa Cecilia conservatory in Rome. He said that “politicians are deaf”.

“Italy is far behind” compared to many other countries, says Barbara Minghetti, of Opera Education, which creates programs for children. “I can vouch for that.”

When he was in the Italian Parliament, Michele Nitti, a musician and former member of the Five Star Movement, proposed a law that added music education to school curricula. His bill never reached the parliamentary vote.

He said that not even Giuseppe Verdi, the 19th-century composer who also served in Parliament, had managed, in his time, to convince his parliamentary colleagues to support music education in schools.

Nitti couldn't even convince legislators to declare opera singing a national treasure. He supported the country's successful attempt to include the practice of opera singing in Italy in UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

“Oh good,” he said.

Rather than let its operatic culture wither, Giambrone said: “Italy should teach other countries how to do it.”

At the Costanzi Theater more than half of the children present at the pajama party belonged to the scouts from the peripheral neighborhoods of Rome. They were accompanied by cold scout leaders who – impressively – commanded silence simply by raising a finger.

Most of the children had never been to the theater before. “Come to think of it, I wasn't there either,” said Gianpaolo Ricciarelli, one of the parents who accompanied his son.

Another father, Armando Cereoli, said: “Between video games, cell phones and Netflix, there is a tough competition to get kids interested in beautiful things.”

Some of the children came from disadvantaged neighborhoods, so the visit was “an opportunity to free their minds and dream,” said Sara Greci, a scout leader and Red Cross worker who brought four girls from a home for abused women and their children.

The opera house runs several outreach programs for the homeless or for people living in Rome's more remote neighborhoods, a way to open the theater to the city and broaden its reach, said Andrea Bonadio, who was hired by the theater to work on this project. programs.

Nunzia Nigro, the theater's director of marketing and education, said many of the children who have participated in the theater's educational programs over the past 25 years are now loyal patrons. “We're starting to pick up some of these efforts and have a younger audience,” she said.

Ms. Nigro helped organize the sleepover, tailoring it for children ages 8 to 10, old enough to sleep away from home but not old enough for hormones to kick in, she said. As it was, two boys were so homesick that they had their mothers pick them up.

On Saturday, the children attended part of the rehearsal for the upcoming performance of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony: “the conductor uses a baton to direct the music, not so different from Harry Potter but more important,” he said Mrs. Nigro. They learned how staff cleaned the world's largest chandelier in a historic building, and learned about the ins and outs of the theater through a scavenger hunt (read general mayhem) that had them climbing up and down stairs, flitting in and out stalls like a multi-character French farce.

Emma the ghost – Valentina Gargano, soprano in the opera's young artists program – did an encore, demanding a promise from the children that they would tell their friends about “this magical place” and return when they grew up.

One girl was so convinced that Ms. Gargano was a real ghost that organizers arranged to meet her when the soprano was in civilian clothes.

After being delighted by music, including Brahms' classic lullaby, the children settled in (or tried to) in a patchwork of sleeping bags on an artificial green lawn used in a previous production of Madama Butterfly. Looming above them were oversized photos of some of the stars who performed at Costanzi, such as Maria Callas, Herbert von Karajan and Rudolf Nureyev.

On Sunday, after breakfast, the children took part in workshops in which they designed colorful ballet costumes, learned basic ballet positions, sang as part of a choir (some with more enthusiasm than others) and performed an opera-themed version of Ladders and Snakes. The game was designed and supervised by Giordano Punturo, the opera's stage manager, dressed in a tuxedo and colorful top hat.

He didn't know about the kids, he said, “but I had a great time.”

After a group song and a photo, it was almost time to go home.

“Did you have fun?” Mr. Giambrone asked the boys. “YES!!” they cheered. “Did you sleep well?” he asked, getting a more mixed response. In particular, several “No”s were heard. Come back soon, he said.

Andrea Quadrini, almost 11 years old, after having hugged his parents who had come to pick him up, couldn't wait to tell them that his team had won at ladders and snakes, and that the treasure hunt had been particularly fun.

“Wow,” he said. “I saw an opera house for the first time.”

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