A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Jul 23, 2013
06:45 PM
Classically Speaking

"Verdi for Kids" Delivers More Than It Promises

"Verdi for Kids" Delivers More Than It Promises

I can find but one fault in Helen Bauer’s new book, Verdi for Kids: The title is misleading. While Bauer presents an engaging and detailed biography that is thoroughly readable for kids of middle school age and up, she has also created a compelling resource for adults ranging from the cautiously curious to the experienced opera lover. You may know some of the Italian master’s “greatest hits,” but few appreciate the historical and cultural context in which these masterpieces were born.

The book (121 pages, published by Chicago Review Press, $16.95) is of course timed for the bicentennial of Verdi’s birth, but its usefulness and charms should give it a long shelf life. Laid out in eight chapters, with some pithy reference sections (principally a glossary of terms, each of which is highlighted in its first appearance in the text, and a “Resources” listing of recordings, DVDs and websites), the book follows a sensible chronology. But Bauer avoids any sense of predictability or staleness by interpolating 21 activities, many of which would be as fun and challenging for the grown-ups as for the target audience.

These activities are by no means restricted to the category of music. There are games (“Hoop Rolling” and “Bocce Ball”), artistic pursuits (“Design a CD cover for Nabucco,” “Design and Sew a Flag”) and even culinary excursions (“Make Your Own Pasta” and “Plant a ‘Tomato Sauce’ Garden”). Too ambitious? You can stick to “Solve an Opera Word Search” or “Write a Letter to Someone You Admire.”

Among the most impressive accomplishments are the ways Bauer unfolds the story of how Verdi became involved in the struggle for a unified Italy, the place where “real life” intersects the creative artist. I venture that relatively few of us who previously dismissed the “lesser” hits of Verdi’s canon understand how operas such as La battaglia di Legnano, I Lombardi, Ernani and I due Foscari meant far more to Verdi’s audiences than just the fact that he was developing into the heir apparent of Rossini.

Verdi for Kids is beautifully illustrated with period drawings and photographs, and is also chock-full of sidebars on important contemporaries of the composer, both political and musical. It is perfect for a weekend afternoon of activity with the kids (or grandkids!). You might not get them to sit through Rigoletto right away, but at the very least you’ll open up the worlds of history and music by bringing them alive in a new and hands-on way. Consider it a dose of long-lasting fun.

Photo: Cover of Verdi for Kids. Courtesy: Chicago Review Press.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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