by Julie Fiore, Austin Opera’s Director of Audience Experience
I had the pleasure of sharing a cold brew coffee with Dr. Charles Carson, Professor of Musicology at The University of Texas at Austin, on a warm September afternoon in 2019. We meandered through recollections of music school, of how “perfect” the first act of Turandot is, of our mutual respect for Maria Callas, and of how organic experiencing music can be.
Dr. Carson’s enthusiasm for opera was apparent from the start. Right away, he offered up his “How-I-Found-Opera” story and it struck me, not because it was unexpected, but because of the impact it had on his life.
“People ask, ‘does opera outreach work?’ It works,” he said. He recalls sitting in a third-grade classroom when in walked a pianist, a soprano, and a tenor who commenced an engaging opera presentation. He said the musicians offered explanations of what they were performing and gave reasons for the structure of the music. “And the next day,” Dr. Carson said, “We got on a bus and went to Houston Grand Opera to see The Magic Flute. I remember sitting there, a third-grader, thinking, Wow – I get it – this makes sense to me. I remember trying to explain it to my Mom, ‘It’s like they’re saying something with words, but they’re also whispering in my ears with music.’ I decided I wanted to see more opera.”
Dr. Carson began begging his family – and later, high school classmates – to accompany him to the opera. He knows well the assumptions the average person makes about opera and sees an opportunity to pay it forward since someone helped him make his opera discovery.
While introducing more and more people to opera, Dr. Carson began to discern what he calls “lynchpin moments.” These moments, like “rungs on a ladder,” he says, also make it into his Austin Opera pre-opera talks. “They give audience members something to latch on to,” Carson said. “It enhances their experience. I have them listen for a specific motif, or for how the piece gears up for a big moment, how you can sit in that moment, and then how the composer moves away from that moment.” He adds, “to me, that’s the mark of a really great piece when those moments are so well integrated that they kind of sneak up on you, even if you know they’re coming.”
He was quick to point out that he doesn’t consider himself a serious opera scholar, but rather, likens his adoration of opera to his brother’s love of baseball, “Whenever my brother travels he seeks out the baseball stadium and goes to a game or takes a tour. I do the same thing with opera and opera houses.”
It’s obvious that Dr. Carson’s initial introduction to opera in a third-grade classroom has never left him. We invite you to experience one of Dr. Carson’s informative, accessible, and entertaining pre-opera lectures – Opera Overtures – throughout the 2019-2020 Season.