he sits playing an oboe among other members of the orchestra
Larry Oppenheim warming up on the oboe before a concert

Q&A: This opera fan shares his passion with the masses

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Name: Larry Oppenheim
Age: 67
City: San Francisco
Position: Founder, Opera for the People

J.: You are a musician and the founder of Opera for the People, a lecture series designed to make opera more enjoyable and accessible, especially for those who have never attended one. Since 2013, you’ve delivered more than 50 talks on this topic. Why do so many people think of opera as inaccessible?

Larry Oppenheim: For one thing, it’s usually sung in a foreign language, and that has reinforced the idea that opera is for elites. Still, English supertitles have been used for about 20 years, and that makes opera easier to understand.

Are there other reasons?

headshot of him playing the oboe
Larry Oppenheim

Opera tickets can be expensive, and many people can only afford seats in the balcony, where it’s hard to see the singers’ facial expressions. Plus, there is a complete lack of exposure to opera in school, so many people have no idea what it’s about.

Your next free talk is on Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at 6:30 p.m. June 14 at the West Portal Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. Where else have you lectured?

Other libraries, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, the Center for Learning in Retirement, the Wagner Society of San Francisco and several retirement homes and adult education classes.

What is the format for a typical lecture?

I think of myself as a storyteller more than a lecturer. For about an hour, I alternate commentary with a lot of short video clips from operas. As I tell the story, I slip in some background facts, but there is no quiz and there is always time for questions.

What sort of feedback do you get?

Many people, including experienced opera-goers, have reported being engaged and responsive. I post information about my talks on Facebook or readers can email me at [email protected].

You describe your own relationship with opera as “a voracious love.” When did it start?

In 1984, I took a class through UC Berkeley’s extension division about the operas of Verdi. I was so devoted to the class that I shocked my relatives by missing a Passover seder that fell on the same night. Seeing video clips of operas, everything clicked — it’s not just about the music. Opera has to be seen.

You retired as a computer programmer after a previous career as a librarian. Currently you are co-principal oboe and solo English horn for the Kensington Symphony Orchestra in the East Bay, serving as its president for eight years. When did your appreciation for music develop?

I grew up in Pomona, and my parents shared with me recordings they especially enjoyed, including Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and Schubert’s “Rosamunde.” Those pieces are the roots of the tree that became my lifelong love for music.

At age 6, you decided to play the oboe after you heard a radio broadcast of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.” And that was it for you?

I tinkered with bassoon and clarinet, but started oboe lessons at 14. Soon after, I played my first solo with the Pomona Community Band. I was terrified, but I did it.

The piece was Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” and that remains my favorite opera. Now I am a Wagner scholar, so the wheel has come around.

Wasn’t Wagner anti-Semitic?

There’s no question that he was, but Wagner was a very complex person, full of contradictions. He had lots of Jewish friends, deep relationships. It seems he disliked Jews as a group but was quite the opposite on an individual basis. Many people try to read anti-Semitism into Wagner’s music, but there are no anti-Semitic subjects there.

Talk a bit about your Jewish upbringing.

My mother grew up Orthodox and father was not religious, so our household was a compromise between the two. My mother instilled in me Jewish ideas such as healing the world and being compassionate and other human values that transcend liturgical practices.

Your parents both were librarians, and your father had a master’s degree in literature. In college, you wrote papers that explored the relationship between literature and music. Talk a bit about that.

For a literature class, I compared Mahler’s 10th symphony to Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and I also wrote about other great works of literature that inspired music.

I have always been fascinated by the intersections of the arts.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.