What a nine-year-old thinks of the opera

The rain came down steadily as we rushed out to the van, ready to pick up her friend and arrive in time to park and walk to the historic State Theater in Modesto for an event combining two great loves of mine: opera and literature. Though I dared not hand over an adapted copy of “Mansfield Park” to my daughter, given its controversial themes, she knew of “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice” from movies, BBC mini-series and Babylit books.

As an avid reader, Miriam will say the skill of reading serves many purposes from aiding the desire to be an author one day to helping one work independently in their schoolwork. She knows a world exists inside the covers of a book, allowing us to go beyond the walls of our home to touch something new. “Sometimes it can teach you things like some books can give you information about living outdoors and camping and they can also give you facts. I learned about London from The Famous Five,” she said.

She prefers to read stories that are adventurous and magical. What would a nine-year-old think of an Austen classic about love, marriage, and intrigue, with a small setting and an exteriorly small narrative?

This is what she had to say:

“It was raining. My mother and I had just set off in the car when my mother realized that it was too early. So I stayed at home and did my math and at the right time we set off in our van and picked up Grace, my friend, on the way. Then we arrived and someone showed us the way to the State Theater. There were lots and lots of seats, they went lower as there were more rows. They had some special curtains because they had no backstage. We sat down in our seats near the middle. Before the show started someone came out and told us a few facts about “Mansfield Park.” My friend Grace had a paper that told her the names of the characters, the name of a dog, and who they were engaged to and who they marry.

“The director said it was a battle over Edmund’s soul. The opera starts out with Mr. Rushworth asking Maria to marry him. In the end, Edmund asks Fanny Price to marry him. I loved it, it was so wonderful. My friend Grace and I discussed it to each other on the way back to our homes, about Fanny Price and Mary Crawford. We noticed that Mary was beautiful but she didn’t care that much about virtue. And Fanny is plain looking but she is a good woman.

“I liked the characters, how they looked, their faces. I liked that they sang instead of talked, how the story is written. It surprised me that Edmund asked Fanny Price to marry him.

Fanny Price was my favorite and so was Edmund. I liked her voice. I like how Edmund cared about virtue and his voice.”

From Opera Modesto's Production of Mansfield Park. Edmund Bertram played by Andrew Pardini with Alix Jerinic as Fanny Price. Photo by Kathryn Anne Casey
Edmund Bertram played by Andrew Pardini with Alix Jerinic as Fanny Price. Photo by Kathryn Anne Casey

The opera, offered as a free student/reader performance whet her appetite for more. She said, “I’d love to attend an opera again. I’d like to see Pride and Prejudice and I’d like to attend more of Jane Austen’s stories.”

As Opera Modesto board member, Hillari DeSchane said during the pre-opera talk, “Opera strips the story down to its skeleton and the clothes put back on our musical notes.” Bringing the story to its core makes it accessible, relatable, and human in a new way. For a girl, nine years old, it illustrated, dazzled, amused, and delighted her with its reliability, the importance of the decisions made between virtue and vice, and the talent demonstrated.

As a lover of art and literature, I know that exposure to great art and great talent broadens our perspective and offers us an experience of transcendence, taking us to a place of beauty. As a mother, to see her wide eyes, her giddy gestures, her overwhelming joy at a match made between the right people for the right reasons, fills my heart in a deeper and fuller way than I could have thought possible.

Photo of two nine-year-olds at the State Theater, Modesto
Photo by Kelly Osterhout

The Rigors of Rigoletto (and other arts)

Previously published as part of “Here’s to the Good Life!” a weekly column in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

On October 25 and 27, Opera Modesto will present the Guiseppe Verdi’s masterpiece Rigoletto to enthusiastic Gallo Center audiences. Like many classic operas, the tragic story centers around a licentious noble (the Duke of Mantua), a character with some deformity (the Duke’s court jester, a hunchbacked Rigoletto) and a beautiful woman (Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda). Opera Modesto brings back to the stage local favorites like Artistic and Creative Director Roy Stevens to play Rigoletto.

Roy Stevens as Rigoletto, Slovenian National Opera, who will star as Rigoletto for Opera Modesto
Roy Stevens as Rigoletto, Slovenian National Opera

In a continued spirit of collaboration Opera Modesto welcomes Victor Starsky of New York to sing the role of the Duke and Maya Kherani from San Francisco to performing as Gilda; and shines the spotlight on local rising stars making their operatic debuts: Amelia Schmidt of Oakdale as Contessa Ceprano; Summer Opera Institute teen performer Elizabeth Barton as the Paggio; and Kristina Townsend Memorial Competition award winner, Christopher Rodriguez (Fresno State) as the Ufficiale. 

Age-old truths come to life through opera: an avenue that combines the arts uniquely and boldly through costume design (visual arts), stage direction and acting, vocal performance, instrumental performance, and storytelling. According to Joseph Pearce, author, literature scholar and Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, stories are interesting because people are interesting. “They relate lessons, insights, and experiences better than a straight presentation of the facts. Someone may be nodding along with a story when they’d be nodding off at a sermon.”

In their best works, storytellers like Shakespeare take the reader the outer rim of what language can do. They impress connoisseurs with their mastery. Opera does this with vocal performance. I have seen crowds go mad over 5-minute drum solos and long-held notes by country music singers. To see the repeated and taxing effort of an opera performer hold not one note but sing an entire aria without a microphone, traveling the vast range of human vocal potential, is spellbinding. 

We love to watch human feats. Being both spiritual and material beings, these feats act as a demonstration of the power of the will to push the body. The arts (visual, performance, written or craft) point us to the immaterial of man when a common physical or cognitive ability evolves to something beautiful.

Beauty, simply put by Thomas Aquinas, is that which, when seen, pleases. It shows the best of the object. One can use a voice to shout obscenities or harmonize. One can punch a wall or perform a fouette. I can text “wher u at” or transcribe a sonnet in calligraphy. We can profess “it all goes to the same place” or take a multi-course meal in its time savoring flavors that need not be exotic but simply bring out the goodness and quality of local cuisine. 

Every human action has this potential. We are physical, thinking and feeling beings, and every type of action can become an art form, performed with rhythm, apparent ease, style and flourish. 

It looks easy. Yet, the artist will tell you, the very best work comes only with difficulty. “Learning isn’t supposed to be fun, it’s work,” my college professor expounded in his disinterest in the style of education that serves the pleasure rather than the discipline of the child.

The goal of these arts, whether woodworking, poetry recitation, or football drills, aims at the same– not merely task completion, but to do so well and with mastery. 

This the potential of human nature more than other (irrational) animals. We have minds that can do, train and then with all the skills in hand, begin to practice the art – the part that feels, that requires intuition, saying, “I just knew it would work.”

Each has his art and not every art fits the standard description of “the arts.” We are all artists who must find that area that will speak to the soul and expand the mind, push the body, and reward not only the self but those who witness it. 

For my part, I look forward to once again, seeing this act in operatic form this month at “Rigoletto” at the Gallo Center in Modesto. For more information, visit www.operamodesto.org.

Rigoletto teaser poster

The Feminine Genius in Art at Blessed is She

On a rainy May afternoon I ducked out of the drizzle through the double glass doors of the Mistlin Art Gallery in the city’s historic downtown to join an intimate gathering of local opera lovers. Patrons gathered around mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz, artist, performer, and remarkable stage presence for a solo recital titled, “Women & Matters of the HeART.” The theme allowed Printz the opportunity to select and perform those songs closest to her own heart.


What are Women’s Matters of the Heart?



Photo by Molly Belle on Unsplash



Printz began with, “Neruda Songs,” a series of sonnets written by Pablo Neruda and set to music by Peter Lieberson.

Romantic love, its devotion and emptying out in self-gift comprised the sonnets’ core matter. Their haunting quality affirmed immediately the otherworldliness of love, taking us beyond time and space. Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est, “love promises infinity, eternity—a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence.” (Deus Caritas Est, 3)

Read the rest at the Blessed is She blog

Watch the recital by Nikola Printz for Opera Modesto