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Children going to the opera? And loving it?

Most of us don't think of opera as a pastime for children. After all, what interest do kids have in High Culture and Classical Music? How many families can you really find in the low-price "family circle" at your local opera house?

Don't tell this to the New York City Opera, however. Always willing to try an enterprising idea, it included a trio of "family operas" in its 1980 spring season at Lincoln Center.The series comprised three Saturday matinees, all comedies sung in English. Verdi's fanciful "Falstaff" came first, followed by Rossini's ever-popular "Barber of Seville" and Prokofiev's juicy "Love for Three Oranges."

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My twin boys are nine years old. They hear a good deal of music around the house, and they have been taken to a few outdoor concerts, where they rush into the distance and throw Frisbees. But they had never seen a real, fully staged opera. As an experiment, I invited them to the City Opera series, and they cheerfully accepted.

The first challenge was to decide which boy would see which opera. When I mentioned "The Barber of Seville," both kids jumped at it -- they wanted to hear the part where the baritone sings "Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!" I explained that this lasts about five seconds, in a two-hour opera, and the air cooled considerably. (Perhaps they had envisioned an entire afternoon of "Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!" I was afraid to ask.) Then I described "Falstaff" as the story of a fat and silly man who hides in a laundry basket and gets dumped in the river. This sounded almost as appealing as the Barber, and Craig settled for it. We agreed that the third matinee would go to the boy who showed the most zeal after his first opera -- a fatherly bribe any parent will recognize.

I know from experience that operas sung in English are rarely more intelligible than operas sung in Swahili, so I briefed Craig on the plot and characters before the curtain went up. Listening to the performance through his ears, as it were, I was struck by how clearly sung it was -- a condition that prevailed through all three productions. I was also reminded how consistently quick Verdi's tempos are in "Falstaff," and how the impression of friendly bustle is accomplished with no loss of elegance or dignity. Just the thing for a child.

Donald Gramm made an expansive Falstaff, plopping himself into that laundry basket with all the good will in the world. Sarah Caldwell conducted with her usual sharpness and vigor. From a kid's point of view, I don't think Verdi's music is as much funm as the Rossini or the Prokofiev, but Craig seemed reasonably engrossed throughout the afternoon -- particularly during the final scene in the Great Park at Windsor, when the "goblins" comported themselves with proper foolishness under Miss Caldwell's imaginative direction.

"The Barber of Seville" is a natural for children, especially when it's as dandily dressed up as the City Opera production. The barber arrives on a bicycle; Bartolo and Basilio look as delightfully ridiculous as a pair of Falstaffs; and yes, the baritone does sing "Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!" Jeremy and I were both charmed with the show, though I missed the "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" pastiche Beverly Sills used to do, and Ambrogio was not as antic as of yore. The cast was splendid, and Gianna Rolanda was a revelation as Rosina. A good time was had by both of us, and the other family groups we spotted seemed equally happy.

Sometime during the next week, I became aware that the boys were arguing over who would get to stay homem from the third opera in the series. High culture is all well and good, they had decided, but not worth kicking in an entire Saturday afternoon. I started propagandizing on behalf of Prokofiev, and Craig agreed to go. The afternoon turned out to be the most entertaining yet.

"Love for Three Oranges" is a genuine fairy tale, with a monarch called the King of Clubs, a witch called Fata Morgana, and a Prince who embarks on a magical quest. The new City Opera production, borrowed from the San Diego Opera , is as utterly wacky as the story. To choose one example from many: When the Princess is dying of thirst in the desert, and the Prince isn't smart enough to save her, a stage assistant runs in from the wings and hands her a Styrofoam cup of water!

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This is great fun -- as are the secondary characters called Empty Heads, the eccentric stage setting with its huge revolving doors, and the portrayal of roguish Leandro by the roguish James Billings. Credit for a rousing afternoon goes to director Tito Capobianco, who is always good for a few surprises, and conductor Christopher Keene, who kept Prokofiev's score well in hand.

Now that it's all over, I'm sure the boys enjoyed their exposure to grand opera -- though they probably won't be clamoring to go again until the warm weather is over. New York City Opera is not the only organization to be concerned with opera on a childhood level. For example, I have seen clever work by the Children's Free Opera at Carnegie Hall, consisting of pantomime performances accompanied by vocal and instrumental music. Yet City Opera is unusual in its commitment to the real, full-blown article -- thoroughly grown-up opera that kids just happen to enjoy, too.

My family is a bit richer for the experience, and City Opera has served itself by introducing its art to the kinds of young audiences who may someday keep opera alive by bringing theirm families. It was a worthwhile experiment, all around.

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