Melinda Bargreen 2015-09-02 01:59:23
Companies attract fresh audiences while giving voice to a new generation of opera Visions of opera often encompass posses of hefty ladies in helmets bellowing arias from the stage at well-heeled patrons. Though these traditional images have their place, the centuries-old art form has evolved. Today’s opera companies have sprung out of gilded houses and into their communities to find new audiences, heralded by a social media buzz. They’re bringing in new talent (like movie director Woody Allen) and updating the classics—consider an irreverent take on “The Marriage of Figaro” called “¡Figaro! (90210)” featuring an undocumented worker in Beverly Hills, Calif. They’re also devising ways to make opera more accessible and fun for younger patrons, ensuring the timeless institution will survive well into the future. Tapping the Community Many organizations have discovered that the best way to get people into the opera house is by bringing opera out to the people. “Of course we love to sell tickets to our giant stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a palace for everyone,” says Stacy Brightman, Los Angeles Opera’s director of education and community engagement. “But we see opera as something for all people. Our mission is sharing opera with the community, whether it’s on the main stage or encounters in a library, or hospital or school.” Those who have little experience with opera may assume that prior knowledge and preparation is necessary in order to appreciate the productions. While it is one of the world’s most comprehensive and multidisciplinary art forms, which presents stunning vocals, orchestral music, theater, dance and video, most opera companies today can attest to the fact that education and preparation are helpful, but a great show is something everyone can appreciate. Brightman likens operatic voices to Olympic athletes: “When you see a world-class track star run a race, you don’t need special training to know that you’ve seen something absolutely amazing.” In order to appeal to younger generations, LA Opera does residencies with workshops and shows in 25 schools annually. The company also works with people of all ages in its Community Opera Chorus Network, producing performances and sing-alongs that include everything from zarzuela (a Spanish musical-theater genre) programs to classes in singing and acting for teens. Additionally, a community opera project brings together hundreds of performers to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for free productions conducted by James Conlon, LA Opera’s music director, that are attended by thousands of viewers. All of this attention to the community doesn’t mean that LA Opera is neglecting its core mission of presenting great performances, however. The 2015-16 season opens with a star-studded double bill of two short operas often performed together: “Gianni Schicchi,” a comedy about a conniver who gives a passel of greedy relatives their comeuppance, and “Pagliacci,” an updated Franco Zeffirelli production about marital jealousy and tragedy in a traveling troupe (Sept. 12 to Oct. 3). This might sound like a relatively ordinary occurrence in the opera arena, except that the stage director for “Gianni Schicchi” is famed film director Woody Allen, and the cast includes superstar Plácido Domingo (one of the great Three Tenors). Then, for “Pagliacci,” the versatile Domingo— who also is the company’s general director—heads into the orchestra pit to conduct. “Plácido is like a force of nature, and such an ambassador for this art form,” Brightman says. “When he told Woody he really should direct an opera, Woody joked that he would probably die before he had to honor the engagement. [Opera productions are usually planned several years into the future.] But fortunately that didn’t happen!” Following the double bill is the contemporary Jake Heggie opera “Moby-Dick” based on the Melville classic with Jay Hunter Morris as the tormented Captain Ahab (Oct. 31 to Nov. 28). This production has already won raves in other presentations, and Heggie’s success reminds opera lovers that this art form needs renewal with more recent works, rather than continually rehashing old ones. Creative Networking Up the coast in the Emerald City, art fans won’t be surprised to hear that Seattle Opera is bringing an innovative approach to building its audiences. In April, the group received a $360,000 grant from the Wallace Foundation to test and develop strategies to increase attendance in the millennial and baby boomer generations. Seattle Opera’s grant is part of the foundation’s Building Audiences for Sustainability effort, a new sixyear, $52 million initiative aimed at developing practical insights into how performing arts organizations can successfully reach new viewers. Seattle Opera already is humming with outreach activities; some of them focus on young professionals, like the Bravo! Club, which recently hosted a night dedicated to the 1980s. The event featured dancing, food and a performance by opera soprano Marcy Stonikas. Other gatherings bring generations together. Special family day matinees on the main stage offer $15 tickets for children and occur in conjunction with student-oriented activities. Opera fans young and old also can use their mobile devices for previews, articles and photos of upcoming productions in the company’s free app. An approach that’s not as high-tech but very engaging, the company has a speakers’ bureau that sends opera aficionados into the community to provide insight into every aspect of production and performance. For students from prekindergarten to high school, Seattle Opera offers age-appropriate opportunities to get hooked on opera: musical story times, abbreviated productions, backstage tours, camps and workshops. The company has also launched an ambitious rebranding effort to better convey the excitement and appeal of opera to potential audiences who might consider it a highbrow medium. “Opera was the popular entertainment of its day, and most of it was designed as very lowbrow indeed,” explains Aidan Lang, Seattle Opera’s general director. “Once people get in the door for the first time, most of them say ‘I had no idea!’ Our job is to build awareness of this extraordinary experience in a greater population base. We hope to make opera an option for an even wider audience range.” Are ticket prices and dressy attire potential barriers? Lang points out that Seattleites spend a lot more on Seahawks tickets and happily dress up for trendy bars. “People are accustomed to making a special effort for prime entertainment,” he says. “Our challenge is to show people the experience and excitement of opera—it’s a great night out.” Bringing People Together “Every opera company is looking for that silver bullet to make opera as interesting to as broad an audience as possible,” says Christopher McBeth, artistic director for Utah Opera, based in Salt Lake City. “At Utah Opera, we believe in starting early: We have one of the most comprehensive education and outreach programs I am aware of in the country. We see every school child in the state, kindergarten through grade 12, over the course of every five years, as we send our performers in a 15-passenger van to every corner of the state.” Utah Opera works in tandem with Utah Symphony to present an array of programming, including the popular Deer Valley Music Festival during summer. In addition to the festival, the Utah Opera presents four titles annually, starting this year with Giacomo Puccini’s popular “Tosca” (Oct. 10-18) in the Capitol Theatre. Similarly to Seattle Opera, the Salt Lake City company supports its outreach campaigns through help from external funding. The school project receives $1.1 million from the Utah State Legislature, a measure of the state’s commitment to this art form. Using a game-show format, the traveling troupe shows students that “opera is enjoyable for everyone, not just people in top hats and furs,” as McBeth puts it. The company’s long-running and highly interactive educational programs have borne fruit: An Opera America survey taken a few years back showed that Utah Opera has the lowest median age of opera attendees nationwide. One aspect of the growing interest amount younger populations is the company’s effort to foster education about the arts at every age level. For instance, high school music clubs can get involved with shows through volunteering opportunities with the opera, theater tours, guest speakers and discounted tickets dress rehearsals for all of the season’s four performances. And with social media sites, opera lovers of all ages can connect online and share their experiences. Utah Opera also cultivates a new generation for the medium through its American Opera Initiative, a campaign that brings the work of U. S. composers to the stage and commissions new works. In the past eight years, it has brought five homegrown productions to Salt Lake City, a reminder that opera isn’t just historic entertainment. It’s a work in process, and its history is still being written—and sung—for all to hear. SETTING THE SCENE Beautiful opera houses impress audiences just as much as the performances that take place onstage. Here are a few of the world’s most stunning venues. International opera fans all have their favorites, but few would argue that the PALAIS GARNIER in Paris takes the prize for the most beautiful in the world. Built in 1875, the structure offers exquisite details like an opulent facade with gilded statuary, a 7-ton bronze-and-crystal chandelier and a horseshoe-shaped auditorium that accommodates 1,979 lucky patrons. Overhead a 2,500-square-foot ceiling mural painted by Marc Chagall depicts scenes from operas by 14 composers. The venue is also the famous setting of Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera.” THE METROPOLITAN OPERA HOUSE in New York City holds twice as many patrons as the Palais Garnier (3,975), and also boasts two huge Chagall murals. Audiences might also catch glimpses of the contemporary Swarovski crystal chandeliers or the opulent auditorium, which is paneled in African rosewood with a gold-leaf ceiling. The building opened in 1966 and is still considered one of the most acoustically successful of the world’s major opera houses. Completed in 1973 and designed by Denmark’s Jørn Utzon, the SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most recognizable buildings in the world, with white tiled shells and beveled glass walls. The structure covers 4.4 acres of land against the backdrop of the Sydney Harbour and is actually a multi-theater complex hosting opera, ballet, symphony concerts and drama presentations.
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