Opera Dives Deep: Notes of Virtue

By: Greg Campbell

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Kansas City-based pianist, musicologist, educator, and writer Grace Odell joined Opera Dives Deep on Monday, October 23, 2023, to prepare audiences for The Sound of Music. Her presentation, Notes of Virtue, explored the fascinating world of the Trapp Family Singers and the musical they inspired. Attendees engaged in facilitated discussion and were invited to consider how the Austrian family and story of The Sound of Music embody a quintessential American value: the virtuous power of music. The presentation in full is available on YouTube, and highlights are below.

As a point of introduction, Grace shared a video clip of the actual von Trapp family singing on a television program. Attendees noted the family wearing traditional Austrian clothing and standing close together in a postured, formal manner; the “folksy” music; and the striking difference between the actual Maria von Trapp and Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp. According to Grace, there is documentation that the von Trapp family toured through Missouri. Allegorically, a Lyric Opera patron remembers seeing the von Trapp family at the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre, about an hour and a half drive east of Kansas City.

Grace shared a few additional images of the von Trapp family, including covers of LP records and marketing materials from their various tours of the United States. Grace asked, “What visual cues link this family to ideas of virtue and morality?” Attendees noted a priest (the Rev. Franz Wasner, the family’s musical director for over twenty years); the family turned toward each other, evoking a sense of community; and a feeling of homeliness.

Attendees agreed the promotional language used to describe the family and their musical programs indeed serves to illustrate the notion of virtue: “The year’s most refreshing entertainment,” “No concert can touch the Trapps’ for that combination of dignity, friendliness, informality, and magnificent music,” and “The seven beautiful daughters and their gracious mother are one of the most heavily booked attractions in U.S. concert history.”

“A family which sings together, plays together, and prays together, usually stays together.”

Maria von Trapp

Tracing musical virtue through American history, Grace began by playing “My Church,” a 2016 song and music video by American singer-songwriter Maren Morris. Through discussion, attendees drew several parallels between the country song and the title tune from The Sound of Music. Music-making’s connection to morality and virtue can be traced back to Colonial America, when music was viewed as fun entertainment rather than deep art. Colonial sheet music collections were designed specifically for children and their female caretakers, and hymn singing in the home was an important activity for the entire family.

In addition to its moral implications, music was seen to have profound physical effects. Benjamin Rush, one of America’s founding fathers, was a physician who advocated for the benefits of music to prevent and treat upper respiratory health issues. Fredrika Bremer, a 19th-century Swedish writer, documented her travels in America and noted the use of music as a medical treatment for mental health. In 2023, we know these findings are, of course, backed up by science.

In conclusion, Grace invited a conversation about the poster advertising Lyric Opera’s production of The Sound of Music. We would be remiss in not acknowledging Bailey and Lauerman, the advertising firm who designed our season art.