It is not everyday that Blair students see English teacher Douglass Compton in formal wear. On a typical afternoon, students might pass the unabashed outdoor enthusiast in shorts and a T-shirt, squash racquet in hand, or catch a glimpse of him in cycling wear, powering up Millbrook’s steep hill after a day of class.
But, on Tuesday, November 16, Mr. Compton traded his athletic shorts for a suit when he accompanied a group of 15 Blair students and five teachers, also donning their sharpest evening wear, to New York’s Metropolitan Opera House for a performance of Puccini’s "Turandot." While they looked uniformly well manicured, in actuality, they were an eclectic bunch. Mr. Compton, the avid outdoorsman from Maine, was joined by Blair’s concertmaster, Julian Huang ’23, along with a visiting teacher from France, and Samantha Antonelli ’22, who simply wanted to see a show in the city. Perhaps the biggest opera fan in the group, Latin instructor Mitch Towne also went along—a teacher known by locals for frequenting a restaurant on Main Street, easing up to the jukebox and choosing an aria. They were young and old, music fans and theater novices, English speakers and polyglots. For many in this diverse group, it was their first experience attending an opera.
“I was just in awe,” says Mr. Compton, who experienced the genre for the first time. “It was a story that captivated my attention about the torments of love; It was about a princess who gets burned by love and the prince who falls in love with her. It's a universal theme, and the performance was so well done.”
Senior Samantha Antonelli found herself equally entranced by the performance, though for different reasons. Dazzled by the spectacle of the staging and deeply moved by the sweeping orchestral melodies, Sam found tears sliding down her cheeks as she let herself float in the sea of music. “I had no idea opera could be so moving,” she recalls.
The idea for the trip came about after Mr. Towne taught a mini-course about opera at Blair this summer. “The first opera was written around 1600 CE—making it one of the oldest genres of music that we still perform and listen to,” explains Mr. Towne. “And opera houses are always packed. Yet somehow, when the uninitiated hear the word ‘opera,’ they think ‘boring’ and ‘old-fashioned.’”
So Mr. Towne set out to construct a course that would clear up misconceptions and show students why global audiences of all ages continue to be entertained and even profoundly moved by opera. When that class concluded, students expressed an interest in attending an opera and Mr. Towne volunteered to find an opportunity. When "Turandot" appeared on the Metropolitan Opera’s schedule, Mr. Towne quickly consulted with Dean of Campus Life and Director of Leadership Programs Carolyn Conforti-Browse ’79.
“I thought 'Turandot' was perfect because I grew up listening to that opera on repeat in my house,” she recalls. “Mr. Towne liked 'Turandot' because it is a classic.”
To prepare for the "Turandot" performance, Ms. Conforti-Browse opened her home and hosted a Sunday brunch for the growing group of attendees. Sipping coffee and nibbling on French toast, Mr. Towne offered the group a primer in opera. By previewing the score and history of Puccini with students, he hoped to give students context for the dramatic narrative, soaring music and stagecraft that they would be seeing.
The experience did not disappoint. Julian Huang, who is an accomplished violinist and student of music, felt prepared when he took his seat in the famous red theatre and described being “blown away” by the spectacular set, complete with pond and palace. When the opera’s sweeping score began, though, it was the composer’s craftsmanship that awed Julian most. “Puccini takes this traditional Chinese folk melody and weaves it throughout the Italian opera,” Julian says, impressed by the composer’s dexterity with a leitmotif.
Blair’s newest crew of opera enthusiasts is hoping that if Mr. Towne’s summer mini-course was the first act and "Turandot" was the second, there will be more to come after an intermission. Ms. Conforti-Browse agrees. “This experience opened doors for students interested in opera,” she says. “We’d like to continue by offering a J-term course in opera and a Society of Skeptics speaker.”
If there is one note lingering at the end of Blair’s evening at the Met, it is one of universal enjoyment. The students and teachers who attended "Turandot" set out as a well-dressed, if disparate, group and came back uniformly praising the experience. As for Mr. Compton, he looks forward to the next time he trades his bike shorts for evening wear. “Oh, yes, I would go again,” he says, “just to marvel at the majesty of it alone.” Just be sure to give him time to get changed before the next opera.