Opera aficionado hits high notes with audiences

April 26, 2011

By Allison Int-Hout

Think opera is kind of ho-hum? If so, perhaps you’ve never experienced Norm Hollingshead’s take on it. The retired middle school teacher has been giving opera previews locally for nearly 35 years, and he’s converted many a skeptic.

Norm Hollingshead holds his copy of the novel ‘Don Quixote’ during a preview of Massenet's opera ‘Don Quixote’ at the Mercer Island Library on Feb. 25. By Allison Int-Hout

“We would crawl over broken glass to go to one of his previews,” season-ticket holder Kristin von Kreisler said of herself and her husband John Bomben.

The Mercer Island Library hosted nearly 40 people Feb. 25 as Hollingshead made one of his final stops during a series in the Seattle-area library system. He delivered the 12th of 14 scheduled lectures in preparation for the Seattle Opera’s upcoming performance of Jules Massenet’s “Don Quixote.”

Two regulars at Hollingshead’s opera previews are Bob and Coleen George, of Sammamish, who were in attendance at his lecture at the Mercer Island Library and said they rarely miss one of his previews. They usually go to the Issaquah Library for Hollingshead’s previews, but snow prevented them from going there the last time it was scheduled.

“He does an excellent job,” Bob George said. “He’s almost more entertaining than the opera itself.”

Prior to each Seattle opera production, through his business OperaPlus, Hollingshead offers opera preview lectures during which he briefly explains the production’s historical background and tells the story of the opera with musical excerpts.

Hollingshead started giving opera previews in 1976 when, after offering to donate his time to the Seattle Opera, he was asked to stand in at the last minute for the scheduled lecturer and give a preview of Jules Massenet’s “Thais.” Since then, Hollingshead has been giving lectures in libraries, retirement homes and middle school classrooms.

“What I try to do is get people excited about the opera that is coming up,” Hollingshead said. “And if they’re not planning to go, I try to change their minds.”

Hollingshead has succeeded in changing the minds of many, according to von Kreisler, who along with her husband now has season tickets as a result of Hollingshead’s opera previews. Von Kreisler said Hollingshead’s previews were what interested her and especially her husband in opera.

“My husband was not interested at all and now he’s a fanatic,” she said. “Now, we wouldn’t miss an opera for anything.”

Mark Shields, a librarian at the Issaquah and Sammamish libraries, said one of Hollingshead’s talents is an ability to captivate members of an audience, regardless of their interest in seeing an opera.

“Norm is a professional — he always entertains crowds,” Shields said. “I recommend him to people who don’t particularly care about opera, like myself, because his enthusiasm is infectious.”

Hollingshead, who retired in 2007 from his career as a middle school language arts and social studies teacher in Seattle Public Schools, said he used to give opera previews to students in his classes because he believes opera fits in perfectly with an arts education.

“In my class, my students got opera whether they wanted it or not,” he said. “I would give a preview to the students and then let them choose if they were interested.”

Hollingshead continues to give opera previews in middle school classrooms. He said the students in these classes can take advantage of Seattle Opera’s discounts for students, which allows those who have received a short education of the production to attend dress rehearsal performances for only $8.

In January, Hollingshead gave previews of Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” to 14 classrooms — 450 students and parents later attended at the Seattle Opera’s discounted rate. In mid-February, he said, 330 students and parents attended a dress rehearsal of “Don Quixote” following his preview of the performance.

Evan Pengra Sult, a 10th grader at Roosevelt High School who was one of Hollingshead’s sixth-grade students in 2006, said his story-telling abilities combined with his comedic anecdotes get young students interested in opera.

“He’s a fabulous storyteller,” Pengra Sult said. “Most of us had no idea about operas except that people sang. By the end, we were all very excited and wanting to go.”

Hollingshead has also been organizing annual opera travel tours since 1993, taking groups to see operatic performances at locations like the Los Angeles Opera, Vancouver Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. Earlier this year, he took a group of 42 to see Puccini’s “Turandot” at the Portland Opera.

Hollingshead is making plans for opera tours this year and next year to the Los Angeles Opera and Vancouver Opera. Anyone interested in being a part of the trips can email normsoperaplus@mac.com for more information.

Hollingshead’s current lecture series in area libraries focuses on the Seattle Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” which will be performed at McCaw Hall in May.


Listen to Norm Hollingshead:

If you go

Norm Hollingshead’s opera preview ‘The Magic Flute’

  • 7 p.m. May 3
  • Issaquah Library, 10 W. Sunset Way
  • 392-5430

Allison Int-Hout is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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