Opera Connection Returns with Opera Expert Dennis Neil Kleinman

Opera Connection makes a triumphant return this season, starting this Sat., October 2 at 2pm with the Season Preview! Opera expert and writer-producer Dennis Neil Kleinman will lead a lively discussion about all 10 of the operas being shown this season. Director of Institutional Advancement Gail VanHoy Carolan spoke with Dennis about the upcoming season. And his answers were so beautiful, we’re breaking this up into two parts! Stay tuned for more!

Tell us about the Opera Connection and its mission. 
The Opera Connection is a series of talks keyed to The Met: Live in HD series at The Music Hall. The talks take place in The Music Hall Loft the mornings before the featured opera. At the beginning of each season, I also present a preview of all 10 operas that will be featured that season. Last year, things were put on hold because of COVID, but we are starting up again and l will be hosting a Met Opera Preview for the 2021-22 season on Saturday, October 2 at 2pm at the Historic Theater.

The mission of the Opera Connection is to get New Hampshire hooked on opera. Like most mission statements, this is easier said than done. There are so many aspects of opera (the refined, structured style of the music; the “unnatural” sound of the voices; the slow pacing of the stories; and so on and on) that present formidable barriers to the uninitiated, and challenge even those who are on more familiar ground.

What I do is use every weapon in my arsenal— video clips from the opera, story and music analysis, historical perspective, humor —to try to connect a 21st-century audience to works of art that can be 300 years old. One of the most powerful of these weapons is connecting aspects of each opera to what is going on here and now in our society, politics, and popular culture. At the last Met Opera Preview, I played the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen and used it to explain the relationship between melody and harmony in tonal music. At this year’s Preview, I am going to play the song “Somewhere” to show how, when the combination is right, words and music create something better than their parts.

You’ve been running these opera connections for how long? What keeps bringing you back? 
My first Opera Connection (then called “The Opera Circle”) was Wednesday, October 19, 2011.  So, if it hadn’t been for COVID canceling the 2020-2021 season, this would be our 10th anniversary year.

The reasons I keep coming back to the OC are: 1) I love having an audience, especially when I’m talking about something I love. 2) The wonderful feedback I get from OC attendees. Here is just one sample of many: I was at an art exhibition at the Discover Portsmouth Center, and I saw a familiar-looking gentleman that I just couldn’t place. At one point we were standing in front of the same painting, and I commented on how much I liked it. He agreed with my assessment, then told me how much he enjoyed the Opera Connection and how it had enriched his and his wife’s experience of opera. At the end of the conversation, he said, “Keep doing what you’re doing. It means a lot to a lot of people.” With feedback like that, how could I not keep going?

What is unique about the way you approach an opera?
Opera is a mash-up of a lot of different things, and I feel that I bring a unique perspective to each of them. I’ve always loved classical music. My dad used to play Brahms’ symphonies during dinner, which was a bit too much sturm und drang for my digestion. But it hooked me on classical music, and I’ve been studying it ever since. I’ve also written music—I’m best known for co-writing the theme from the PBS children’s show Reading Rainbow—which gives me some insight into the composing process and the way words and music fit together.

I am also fascinated by narrative. I’ve written screenplays, some of which were actually optioned and produced, and it’s taught me the fundamentals that drive a story, whether it’s a superhero movie or an opera libretto.

But I think the secret sauce is how I work history into the discussion. I have had the privilege of writing and producing specials for The History Channel, Discovery, and Nat Geo on a variety of historical subjects. It taught me how to use history to transport the OC audience back to the time when these magnificent works were created and to vicariously experience the excitement and awe they must have generated in their day.

Stay tuned for part two of my interview with Dennis!