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Opera confronts the everlasting need to attract new, younger audiences
By Mort Levine

A line in the recent edition of Opera News should give every opera fan pause. It declared in terms of U.S. opera-going that “overall attendance declined by approximately a third from 2002 to 2008”. The piece, about a 32-year-old composer, Jennifer Jolley, claims that the problem is caused by repertory choices.

I would have guessed that another major reason is that the aging base of opera is not being replaced as it dies off or can’t get to the opera house very easily. One must agree the classic repertory of Butterflies, Bohemes, and Traviatas don’t pull the way they used to. But then what does in our world of DVRs, DVDs, HD movies et al?

Ms. Jolley, from her HQ in Cincinnati, has launched an outfit to deal with the problem in some unique ways. Her NANOWorks is an acronym for North American New Opera Workshop which has as its target the always elusive youth audience. She told the Denver Post opera critic Kyle MacMillan audiences are “turned off by grand opera--two or three hour works, not in English, two or three hours long and dealing with issues they can’t relate to.”

Silicon Valley knows NANO as a way to describe miniaturization. Ms. Jolley has in mind 21st century operas that will be a maximum of a half-hour in length (more related to today’s attention spans), subjects in English dealing with current news events which will still be “high art”. She hopes to keep costs down by limiting casts and making the music with a 5-piece combo. Her first offering only took 10 minutes. It was titled “Krispy Cremes and the Butter Queens” about a celebrity TV chef, Paula Deen.

Everyone should welcome fresh ideas to reinvigorate opera attendance. But can such endeavors insure opera’s future? True, if it spreads, it could help absorb the amazingly talented outputs of various young artists programs like SF’s Merola and Opera San José’s young resident artists. Our great conservatories and university music programs are likewise producing outstanding singers and musicians with little heed to how they will sustain themselves.

Marketers are also hard at work devising ways to extend audiences. San Francisco’s Bravo program offers discounts and special events for the 20 to 45 year old bracket. Same day discounts for servicemen and women, seniors, and students are sizable and the seats are outstanding.

The Bay Area opera scene is fortunate to have imaginative and far-sighted artistic leaders who believe in encouraging contemporary works. SFO’s General Director David Gockley was lured here because of his innovative programming and commissioning of new works at Houston Grand Opera. This season’s Mary Magdalene by Mark Adamo and this fall’s Tobias Picker’s new work Dolores Claiborne keeps that tradition alive.

Most critics found fault with the Adamo work. With some editing and rewrite, it could eventually find its way to join his Little Women which is one of the most frequently performed works by a living composer. I found Mary a challenging piece which rewarded preparation and attention. Soprano Sasha Cooke’s title role performance was mesmerizing. I suspect Dolora Zajick will be the same when the Stephen King novel reaches the San Francisco stage on September 18.

So the effort goes on to make opera relevant to today’s entertainment-saturated audiences.

(SJOG Newsletter May, 2013)

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