After my dyspeptic middle-aged rant last month about the hegemony of pop music and its teenage values (Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells my wife called it, but I stand by every word), it was nice to perform Don Giovanni to a Royal Opera House full of children and teenagers a few Thursdays ago, and to find it the most enlivening and inspiring experience. Instead of the normal general rehearsal in the morning - more or less thickly populated by relatives, friends of the house and so on - we played to a seething, cheering, booing, gobsmacked crowd of schoolchildren from 68 different schools who filled the red-plush house to its rafters. Or so it seemed to me. That they should be amazed by the display of sophisticated pyrotechnics which Francesco Zambello's production conjures up for Don Giovanni's descent into hell was hardly surprising. That a sentimental (in the best sense) and understated masterpiece of stillness like the aria Dalla sua pace would be attentively listened to and enthusiastically received was, however, reinvigorating.
The innocence of an audience of children is at the same time a little threatening and an opportunity. Art is artifice, contrived, artificial, mannered and, very often, an acquired taste. Performing something as apparently highfalutin' as a Mozart opera, a canonical work if ever there was one, you are protected by the reverence which it holds around itself as an aura.
And the worry with an audience which doesn't have that reverence is that the Emperor will be found to have no clothes. Every sung performance in my experience has that quality of the best stand-up comedy - of teetering on the edge, of daring to be almost but not quite ridiculous - and children will not be too polite to laugh or yawn or fidget. Grown-ups, as concert- and opera-goers well know, tend to cough instead: mostly just as evident a sign of boredom and drifting attention, but one which is (on the whole) graciously afforded a viral alibi.