Norm Hollingshead’s OperaPlus


It has just occurred to Norm that there might be people clicking on this website who don’t know a thing about him, his lectures and tours.  So here is some brief background about “Norm Hollingshead’s OperaPlus” for newcomers.

Norm retired in June of 2007 after 35 years as a middle-school teacher in the Seattle Public Schools.  Opera is his hobby and he was lucky enough to have been invited to give an “opera preview” lecture for the Seattle Opera Guild in May of 1976 and he has been giving “opera previews” and other “opera-related lectures” ever since.  In the new millennium Norm was averaging 90 to 100 lectures a year but since 2008 the number of lectures has increased to more almost 180 in 2011 (including 70 or so in middle school classrooms).  Schedules for his opera previews and other opera-related lectures are listed on the “schedules” web-page.  In addition, in 1993, Norm led
his first opera tour ( 17 intrepid tour members followed Norm to the San Francisco Opera).  Since 1993 there have been more than 28 OperaPlus tours and, so far, in 2011, Norm and Tomoko have led a very

successful tour to Portland Opera in February of 2011 to see Puccini’s Turandot.  Find information about OperaPlus tours for 2011/12 (two to Los Angeles Opera/LA Phil and one to Vancouver

Opera)  on the Tours web-page.

What about Tomoko?  Norm and Tomoko began dating in 2002, became a couple in 2003 and married in 2005.  Happily for their relationship both Norm and Tomoko are CRAZY about opera.  Tomoko has great organizational skills and 38 years experience in the travel industry so it was natural that she would become Norm’s partner in business as well as life.




First opera seen--Puccini’s “Tosca” at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, summer of  l964

How many operas seen to date--180                                 

All-time favorite opera--Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”

Opera most anxious to see “live”--Verdi’s “Ernani”

All-time favorite opera singer--Leontyne Price

Favorite active singers--William Burden, Susan Graham, Dimitri Hvorostovsky, Patricia Racette, Anna Maria Martinez, Brandon Jovanovich

Best performance seen recently--Anna Maria Martinez as Rusalka at Chicago Lyric Opera



First opera seen--Verdi’s “Don Carlo”, Tokyo, l967

How many operas seen to date--157

All-time favorite opera--Richard Strauss’s “Salome”

Opera most anxious to see “live”--Lehar’s “The Land of Smiles”

All-time favorite opera singer--Samuel Ramey

Favorite active singers--Thomas Hampson, Susan Graham, Dimitri Hvorostovsky, Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon

Best performance seen reeently--Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San in “Madama Butterfly” at San Francisco Opera (12-1-07)

“Norm’s OperaPlus tours are absolutely delightful.  They are well-planned and Norm’s preview lectures before each performance are always special.”



“”I just wanted to tell you how MUCH my husband and I love Norm Hollingshead’s lectures.  He’s the best speaker we think we’ve ever heard--so insightful, funny, intelligent, riveting.  The more you bring him here the better.  I’ve started inviting friends to his lectures with me.  Many thanks.” KvK/Bainbridge Island





Osaka, Japan--November 2007

Verona, Italy--July 2007

Email Me

Norm and Tomoko--Astoria (2006)

                                                                     JULY 1, 2010

To: Seattle Opera’s Education Department

From: Norm Hollingshead, retired teacher

    I gave my first “Opera Preview” to students in the summer of 1977.  It was in self-defense.  I was team-teaching in a summer school program (for students grades 1-8)with two math/science “geeks”.  Every week we offered a week-long “choice” activity for the students.  My colleagues, of course, offered “geodesic domes”, etc., and wanted me to do something similar.  I was/am more of a liberal arts “geek” and I finally rebelled and offered a week-long course on Wagner’s “Ring” which was to be performed that summer at Seattle for the third time.  We studied the story, got a acquainted with some of the music, acted-out/lip-synched two of the scenes of their choice (“Ride of the Valkyries” and “Siegfried fights the Dragon”).  The pay-off for this was a field trip on Friday to a rehearsal at the Opera House courtesy of Seattle Opera’s Education Department (my favorite moment occurred when the condescending stage manager sat down and, in a voice you would use with second graders, began to tell the story of the “Ring” only to be interrupted after 2 sentences by a well-spoken 6th grader who said, matter-of-factly, “We already know the story--tell us something about this production!”).  About 30 students signed up and we had a great week.  To my delight Seattle Opera was impressed with this group of young “Ring” nuts so offered them discount tickets ($15) for the English Language “Rhinegold” which was to take place in a couple of weeks, after the summer school program was completed.  About 2/3 of the students took up the offer and with a parent went to see “Rhinegold”.  I didn’t teach in that summer program again so I never got to talk to the students who attended the opera to find out of they liked it, but how could students not like “Rhinegold”? 

    The result of this student/opera experience in the summer of 1977 taught me two things:  (1) I would give opera previews to my own classes when the regular school year resumed in September and (2) I would find a discount way for students who were interested to get to see the opera.  So that’s what I did.  I talked with Seattle Opera’s Ticket Manager, a charming fellow named David Camber, and we worked out a deal where I could have a few seats in the top 2 rows of the top balcony for the Sunday matinee for something like $7 a ticket.  I was teaching in a team room with 3 other teachers and about 110-120 students each year and it was always a big deal when we stopped our regular curriculum for a couple of days after lunch for another “opera preview” from “Mr. H.” (my nickname).  These were 4th-6th graders.  The trip to see the opera was always just an “option”, not a requirement, and parents/guardians were responsible for getting their students to the Opera House.

    After a few years I moved into my own classroom but my former Team colleagues still invited me back to give “opera previews”.  The numbers of students who wanted to attend the operas grew so David Camber referred me to the Seattle Opera Guild which had a Student Ticket Subsidy Program to help students be able to attend the Sunday matinee.  For a decade or so I worked with the Guild’s “Ticket Lady” and it was a harmonious/productive relationship.  I remember fondly the many wonderful students and opera experiences of my career in elementary school.  Just two stories. The first is amusing: one 4th grade girl went to every opera in the season she was in my class, including “Tannhauser”.  Her mother later told me that her daughter told her, after seeing four operas, “Oh, Mama, I just love opera...I love everything about it, the costumes, the scenery, the stories, the music...if only they wouldn’t sing.”  The second story is more moving.   In the early 90’s Seattle Opera presented Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”.  Believe it or not it is a wonderful story to tell to 5th graders.  One deeply troubled young girl, who had not attended any operas that year, insisted her “Big Sister” take her to the opera (the girl’s mother had been shot to death robbing a liquor store when the girl was just an infant--she lived with her grandmother and had made life difficult for a series of “Big Sisters”).  At the second intermission I saw the girl and her “Big Sister” (an earnest young woman about 30) and in an aside the “Big Sister” said, “I don’t know why we came to this--this isn’t an opera for kids.”  I just shrugged my shoulders but, after the opera concluded, I saw both of them in the lobby, sobbing in each other’s arms, and I heard the girl telling her “Big Sister” over and over, “I told you it would be good, I told you it would be good!”   Then there were three of us teary.

    In the early 90’s I moved to  middle school and had 150 students a day instead of 30.  I knew that the Seattle Opera Guild would not be able to provide me with the number of opera tickets I needed so I asked Perry Lorenzo, Seattle Opera’s fledgling director of its fledgling Education Department, if he could help me out.  He suggested I bring my students to a Dress Rehearsal.  He explained that these tickets were for high school students who had been prepared by their teachers but he didn’t see why well-prepared middle-schoolers might not benefit.  So we gave it a try and have never looked back.  This program to provide well-prepared students with low cost tickets to a Dress Rehearsal is now called the “Experience Opera Program”.  I taught at that middle school  for 16 years until I retired in June of 2007 and we went to every opera but 3.  Because middle schoolers do not drive they had to go with parents or carpool with other students and their parents.  For popular operas with compelling stories (“Rigoletto”, “La Boheme”, etc.)--middle schoolers love opera stories more than the music--we would have 90-140 students and parents attend.  It was very exciting.  When I retired, I recalled that I had been giving opera previews to students for 30 of my 35 years of teaching.  It was one of my favorite parts of my long teaching career.  Whenever I encounter former students, which is frequently (especially with Facebook), almost invariably the first question is “Do you still do opera with kids?”  This is very satisfying indeed.

    It turned out, however, that even though I was retired, I was not done giving opera previews to students.  Even before I retired several students had asked me, “What are we going to do about opera next year if you are retired?”  Needless to say it pleased me that they had come to think of opera as “important”.  I mumbled that I’d think of something and when the new school year rolled around, I asked the 8th grade teacher who had most of my former students for Language Arts if I could come into her class and give previews and would do all the paper work, collecting checks, dividing up tickets, passing out tickets, etc.  She said “yes” and so it continued for another year.  But in my second year of retirement (2008/09 school year) a couple of colleagues who had heard about my previews over the years, asked if I would come to their classes to give previews/provide Dress Rehearsal tickets, etc. They said they wanted to add more “arts” to their Language Arts/Social Studies curriculum.  I knew this would require more  tickets so I asked Seattle Opera Education Department if I could up my numbers for the 08/09 season.  They said “give it a try--we can probably make it work”.  Just what I wanted to hear so, in 08/09, instead of giving 1 or 2 previews, I gave 6 and, at the end of the season, 640 middle school students and their parents had gone to a Seattle Opera Dress Rehearsals.  Of course some students went to all four.  In the season just ended (09/10), more teachers asked for previews so I ended up giving 12 or 13 previews in classrooms for all four operas and obliterated my old record of 640.  In the 2009/10 season, 1290 middle school students and their parents went to Seattle Opera Dress Rehearsals courtesy of Seattle Opera’s “Experience Opera Program”.  One thing must be noted here about that number of 1290.  Not all of the students attending dress rehearsals are middle schoolers.  A dozen or so are now high school students who got “hooked on opera” in middle school.  We keep in touch via e-mail and they send me checks and attend each rehearsal, all sitting together, just like “old times”.

    Now I am no longer a “spring chicken but I have realized that getting kids to the opera has been a mission of mine for 35 years.  Thanks to Seattle Opera, especially the “Experience Opera Program”, I have been able to do this with ever increasing success.  I truly hope this wonderful student-oriented program will continue.  I know I will continue to give opera previews in middle schools as long as I am able.  Who knows what we can accomplish in expanding youthful opera audiences with the support of such a great program as “Experience Opera”.

Norm and “Opera in the Schools”

FROM THE ARCHIVES:  Seattle Magazine wrote about Norm in October 2005 where they dubbed him Seattle’s “Opera Man”.  Seattle Magazine writer, Hilary Benson, had this to say about Norm: “Norm Hollingshead--musical missionary, cultural crusader--he tells stories of love, pain and suffering--tales that probe the human condition and evoke emotions deep in the soul.  They are the well-known tales of Verdi, Puccini, and the like, and Norm Hollingshead weaves them into an understandable tapestry. bringing to life an art form that some believe should be packed away.

  Opera is not always easy to listen to, but Hollingshead, the Seattle area’s longtime ‘opera translator’ has been winning over fans to opera for years.  His OperaPlus lectures previewing upcoming Seattle Opera productions serve as a pregame show.  Infused with humor he explains libretti or storylines and builds excitement.  Lecture audiences learn to marvel at a soprano ariaThe OperaPlus lectures are free, sponsored by library guilds throughout King County.  Since giving his first “opera preview” lecture in l976, Hollingshead has built a loyal following of hundreds.  He says,  ‘After 15 years or so of giving preview lectures, I realized people were coming to hear me.  They didn’t just want the story; they wanted Norm’s version of the opera.  That took some of the pressure off.’ 

    Hollingshead found his passion for opera when he was 23 and was given his first opera recording, Puccini’s Tosca as a wedding gift.  He listened to Leontyne Price singing the role of Tosca and he was hooked. Now he gives 90-100 lectures a year, a grueling schedule that he calls ‘invigorating’.  Indeed it is a “hobby” rather than his day job*.  This energetic language arts/social studies teacher at Seattle’s Washington Middle School, even infuses opera into his classes, generating opera excitement among 6th and 7th graders who usually have more affinity with i-pods than opera.  Many of Hollingshead’s former students have grown up to become Seattle Opera Ticket holders.

    Opera is Hollingshead’s mission.  For each person he convinces to sample opera just once, it is a mission accomplished.”

*Note--In June of 2007 Hollingshead retired after teaching middle school for 35 years in the Seattle School District.  He still returns to Washington and Hamilton Middle Schools four times a year to give “opera previews” to students.  In the 2010/11 more than 1900 middle-schoolers and their parents have attended Seattle Opera Dress Rehearsals as a result of these in-school previews.