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)
To top of page
Read past "Travelers" in the Archives