A puff of smoke and a villain entering the stage on an elevator through a trap door. A portrait of the heroine's mother brought to life.

Those tricks and a fabulous crowd scene of students in a tavern are what I remember about my first opera. It was in 1964 at the old Metropolitan Opera House, the Grand Old Lady of 39th Street - the place where Caruso and Callas attained immortality.

If you asked me why I went to the Met that night, I would tell you it was because of my grandmother. The wood and plaster interior of Grace Church was a perfect acoustical setting for stringed instruments.She quietly and without preaching introduced me to the Saturday radio broadcasts, which have brought opera to millions over some 80 years.

Relationships matter in everything else, so it should be no surprise that they make the difference in how a child is introduced to the arts.

That's part of why arts in the schools matter so much. It's also why arts organizations spend so much energy and money reaching into the schools.

One of the best arts educators in North America, Speight Jenkins, spoke to the Columbia Forum last week. Jenkins offered his listeners a short course in the history of opera. Jenkins is general director of the Seattle Opera.

There is a quip that the world's most expensive undertaking is war, and that the second-most expensive undertaking is opera. It is no mean feat that Jenkins has kept his company in the black for several seasons.

Jenkins said the impediment to people attending opera is not income. It's education. If they've picked up the love of this performing art, they will save in order to buy opera tickets.

Our cultural and entertainment world is cluttered. When I was a kid, Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts on NBC were an event. Today those broadcasts would be lost among the plethora of cable channels. The proliferation of television options have led to a perversion of Gresham's Law, an economic principle that states that good money drives out bad. In the world of television, bad programming drives out good.

Opera is, above all, about emotion, Jenkins said. People who are uncomfortable with emotion, won't like opera.

When music amplifies the words of a story, you have opera. That's why Tennessee Williams plays can't be made into operas, Jenkins said. Williams' plays are the equivalent of operas.

Last Friday night's performance of Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ epitomized the concept of music amplifying words. Grace Episcopal Church held an overflow crowd. Eight members of the local group Con Amici supplied the music. Narration was provided by clergy and lay readers from Grace Episcopal, First Lutheran Church and Peace Lutheran Church.

The interior of Grace Church is wood and plaster, and those are the best elements for good acoustics. The violins, violas, cello and bass resonated beautifully in those confines.

- S.A.F.

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