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Nov. 04 2011

Opening night, but no jitters… yet!

By Dyana Neal | Posted in Host Blogs | No Comments

Baltimore, are you ready for some opera?

Lyric Opera Baltimore’s “La Traviata” opens tonight & I am as excited as a five-year-old on the night before Christmas. So many people have worked so hard to start this brand-new company, but in my opinion, the biggest kudos should go to the fabulous James Harp, LOB’s Artistic Director. Mr. Harp has put his heart & soul into this production, as always, & it shows.

There’s a great deal of concern in the classical music world – & especially among those of us who perform & produce opera – about the graying of audiences & the need to bring in younger ticket-holders. The internet is full of articles claiming that the operatic art form will die out sometime today if we don’t start doing all new rep, in modern dress, to bring in 20- & 30- somethings. Apparently period costumes, music by the likes of Verdi & Puccini, high ticket prices, & the common perception that opera is “elitist” are what’s keeping younger folks away.

I’m not so sure those points are valid, or at least that they’re all that’s turning people off on opera. A couple of weeks ago, my husband & I attended an excellent student production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” at Towson University. The incidental music was rather movie-score-esque & the fight scenes were a bit more intense than one sometimes sees, but otherwise, this was classic Shakespeare, in period dress. The house was packed & the vast majority of the audience was under 25. Not only were they extremely quiet & attentive (many theatergoers in my age group could have taken a lesson from them in that regard!), when the show was over, they applauded wildly, gave a most genuine standing ovation, & shouted for joy as if they’d just seen a rock concert. Shakespeare isn’t opera, you say? True, but the mostly-student audience at this week’s “La Traviata” dress rehearsal reacted in exactly the same way. I remember the young folks who came to final dress at Baltimore Opera being just as enthusiastic, & Mr. Harp loves to talk about the way kids who see his opera outreach performances react to the presentations – many say they want to be opera singers when they grow up!

As for the music, I will agree that operatic singing is a tough sell for some. During my days as a student announcer at WSUI/KSUI in Iowa City, Iowa, I had a colleague who was a punk rock fan (The Clash, etc.) & had only listened to opera on the air if he was board-opping for one of our broadcasts. He found the singing style off-putting & just didn’t understand what the big deal was. For some time, I urged him to attend one of the UI Opera Theater’s productions, & finally, he did. He came back to work the following Monday & said he’d had a blast! Even his misgivings about operatic singing had gone away. In his words: “I didn’t know one guy could do that with just his voice! No microphone! Nothing!” My colleague may not have become a hardcore opera fan, but his idea of the art form as stale & only for wealthy older folks (since this was a university production, there were quite a few students in the house) had changed, indeed.

I love hearing wonderful new music, but I certainly don’t think we need to shelve “La Traviata”, “La Boheme”, etc. Longtime opera fans may feel jaded about such repertoire, but we need to remember that most people haven’t heard or seen these shows multiple times, or even once. The music may have been written over a century ago, but it’s brand new to them. Also, like it or not, there is a segment of the opera audience that is not fond of newer music, & we need to present shows that will sell tickets in order to finance edgier fare. When I go to new operas or avant-garde productions of older works, my fellow audience members tend to be my colleagues… people who already love opera & just want something different tonight. Oh, & how about the fact that warhorses stick around for decades because they’re great works of art?

Grand opera is expensive to produce, & as such, it comes with high ticket prices. I’ll give the hand-wringers that. However, have you looked at ticket prices for a Broadway show, a Lady Gaga concert, or a professional sporting event lately? Yikes! If ticket prices are what’s keeping younger folks out of the opera house, perhaps it’s that they can afford to go to far fewer events these days, of any kind, & their favorites take priority. (Now, how do we go about making opera a “favorite?” Hmm.)

As for the perception of opera’s “elitism”, I would lay the blame for much of that squarely at the feet of popular culture. How many movies, TV shows, & commercials have you seen in which the bored husband is dragged to the opera (or ballet) by his socially ambitious wife & either falls asleep during the performance or spends the entire evening listening to a ballgame on headphones? I fume whenever I see such things.

While I certainly agree that we need to keep attracting new patrons, I don’t know that it’s realistic to expect them to be young folks, at least not entirely. Most people don’t embrace any form of classical music in their 20′s or 30′s. Concern that audiences are dying off has been rampant in the classical music world for at least 50 years – Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” are but one example of attempts that have been made to reverse that trend, & guess what? If you remember when those concerts were on TV, you are now well over 50! I understand & share the concerns of those who are trying to make classical music, & especially opera, attractive to a new generation; I just don’t think we’re going about it in the best ways at this point. I will also freely admit that I don’t have all the answers, but I will keep my eyes & ears open, continue chatting with colleagues, & blog about such matters in the future. Please feel free to share your thoughts on this subject!

When I digress, I do it big-time, don’t I?

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Dyana Neal

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Dyana is WBJC's midday host. Her full bio can be read here.

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