Vadim Ghirda/AP
A girl walks past a mural depicting the city's opera house in Odessa, Ukraine, last month.

In Ukraine, a night at the opera isn't just for adults

As an American, the Monitor's European bureau chief did not expect the audience at Kiev's opera house to be quite so... youthful.

Opera Teen, the teenage opera fanatic whose blog was picked up by The Huffington Post and who was profiled in these pages, made such a splash because he is such a rarity: What American teen loves the opera?

But a recent visit to the opera house in Kiev revealed he might not be such an anomaly, were he Ukrainian.

In the middle of "The Tale of Tsar Saltan" by Russian composer Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov I noticed a little boy in front of me, perched on his chair, mesmerized by the performance. So was his sister. And then I started noticing kids everywhere.

Some of them looked about 10. Many of them looked 5 or younger. Throughout the two-and-a-half-hour performance, none of them misbehaved, at least within earshot.

It was the night before presidential elections in Ukraine. I had really wanted to go to the opera, and given the current tensions between Ukraine and Russia, I thought it would be particularly interesting to see a Russian-language production. In the end that wasn’t much of a novelty. The overhead translation for the opera was not in Ukrainian but Russian. Most people speak both, often flipping between them, and thinking nothing of it.

What was far more interesting was the demographic of the audience in the opera house seats. I had already thought there was something worth exploring, after I looked at the schedule for the month of May. Of 31 days, there were 27 different offerings between ballet and opera ranging from Turandot to Chopiniana.

And then there is the price. I paid the equivalent of $5.50 for my ticket, and that wasn’t the cheapest seat in the house. For a little perspective, each meal I ate in a restaurant turned out to be roughly $15.

At intermission I approached the boy’s father, Michaylo. “Why yes,” he said, they go to the opera often. And the ballet. And the theater. His daughter has been going for seven years. She is 13. “We like the movies too,” he says. “But you can watch movies at home.”

Good point. But I’d still never take one of my nephews or niece to the opera, even if I could afford it. Forget about my three-year-old (there were some of those in the audience too). I’m already in awe of the three-year-olds in Paris who sit, content and quiet, through three-course meals at packed bistros, where crayons are not offered and running around is not tolerated. But when it comes to opera, I think the Ukrainians have beat even the French.

I asked my translator, Stanislav, about it. He remembers being taken to the opera at age 5. His mom would pack some peanuts in her bag to keep him quiet if he got fidgety. My mom, a pianist, took us to the symphony in the park in Pittsburgh (she used to bring us gummy bears), but I remember thinking we were pretty special that we got to do that. But it is the norm in Ukraine.

“It’s very important in Ukraine to instill a love of culture in children,” Stanislav says. Plus, it teaches children to behave, to develop listening skills, and even glean lessons from the tales of the shows, he says.

Unfortunately, before we got to this point, he had asked me what I saw. I mumbled something about czars and sons – hoping that our slight language barrier would spare me the embarrassment of not remembering the exact title. Thankfully he didn’t probe further. He didn't need to. “Ah yes,” said the young man, who is still in university, he knew the Russian opera well.

Clearly the Ukrainians have beat the Americans too.

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