Opera Meets Film: The Simple Lesson Opera Audiences Can Learn from ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ Operas

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment looks at Fred Rogers’ own operatic compositions.

Mr. Rogers, as Fred Rogers is most commonly known in popular culture, has made a major comeback into the mainstream over the last few months, particularly in the world of cinema.

In 2018, a documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” became a smash hit, earning nominations and wins for best documentary from a wide range of organizations, including the Independent Spirit Awards, Directors Guild of Ameica, and Satelitte Awards, among others. Now, this winter, audiences will get a chance to watch the bio pic, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” starring Tom Hanks.

Rogers was born in 1928 and lived until 2003, becoming a major part of the cultural conversation with his preschool television series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” But a little-known fact about him was that he was also an opera composer, though not in the conventional sense one might associate with the art form.

Between 1968 and 1986, Rogers composed 13 operas throughout his famed series as part of Make-Believe segments. On many occasions he worked with baritone John Reardon as the main character.

In 1968, he created “Babysitter Opera,” followed by “Campsite Opera.” A year later, it was time for “Teddy Bear / Whaing Ship Opera.” In 1970, he wrote “Pineapples and Tomatoes,” with “Monkey’s Uncle” coming in 1971. “Snow People and Warm Pussycat” came in 1972 with “Potato Bugs and Cows” showcased in 1973. “All in the Laundry,” “Key to Otherland,” “Windstorm in Bubbleland,” “Spoon Mountain,” “A Granddad for Daniel,” and “A Star for Kitty,” followed between 1972-1986.

All About The Process

Rogers operas are aimed at kids, full of moral lessons that they can apply to their everyday lives. But Rogers didn’t just aim to present a work as a completed product that kids could learn lessons from. His aim was higher and how he portrayed the operas on his show was perhaps most important.

On a Monday, audiences might tune in to see Mr. Rogers get a “commission” to create an opera. Over the course of that week, the audience would get a “behind the scenes” look at how these works would come into being, how ideas were assembled bit by bit until they created a cohesive whole.

Audiences that view the final product may often find them strange, especially viewed through a contemporary adult lens, but what is most fascinating about his approach via his television show was how it starkly contrasts with opera as it is often presented today.

The final product is the aim and even attempts at behind the scenes access remain rather limited from the biggest companies. Many Live in HD transmissions might hint at the process from different angles with interview questions or some short clips, but few open their doors to a truly immersive process-driven narrative. One might make an argument for “L’Opéra,” a documentary offering a window into the backstage of the Paris Opera, but there is little else. Moreover, the creation of modern operas, which is essential to the continued life of the art form well into the 21st century, hasn’t really been documented with great depth via audiovisual medium on a larger scale.

But Rogers’ choice to showcase this process over the course of a week is not only, in retrospective education for children, but also for adult viewers. It is but a mere hint at the challenges that most opera creators must overcome in creating and mounting some of the great masterpieces that audiences (and critics) then consume.

As with everything in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” there’s an importantly subtle but simple lesson to take away for the opera going public (kids and adults alike) – don’t take the hard work of anyone creating an opera for granted, no matter what you think of it.


Opera Meets Film