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‘Tea: A Mirror of Soul, Vancouver Opera’s current production, may appeal to the city’s Asian population (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
‘Tea: A Mirror of Soul, Vancouver Opera’s current production, may appeal to the city’s Asian population (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Experiments in venue: Take me out to the … opera? Add to ...

San Francisco Opera wanted to fling open its doors, and find a new audience. The plan it came up with involved the Giants’s stadium – and you could say they hit it out of the park.

People from all walks of life huddle on the field in sleeping bags, having a picnic under the stars, and watching, for many of them, their first opera, simulcast in HD on a 31-metre-high video screen – all for free. The Opera at the Ballpark events have attracted as many as 32,000 people a night.

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“It’s pretty electric. … You have the size, you have the intensity of emotion, you have the sense of community and people experiencing something on a communal basis. But you also have the comforts of a major world-class ballpark,” explains San Francisco Opera Associate General Director Matthew Shilvock. “People can get up and buy a hot dog or a beer in the middle of an aria if they like. They’re completely free to come and go as they wish. What’s amazing, though, is once the opera starts you can hear a pin drop in that stadium.”

This sort of out-of-the-opera-box experience is more than a cool way to see a free show; it may be key to growing new audiences for strained companies up against the extraordinary storm of a bad economy, a funding crisis (especially in the United States), a population growing up in large part without exposure to opera, and a shrinking list of sure-fire hits at the box office.

As opera companies met last week in Vancouver for the annual North American opera conference, strategies like these are feeding a great sense of optimism and renewal. The fat lady is not singing. But it is imperative, these companies are hearing, to change up the tune to some extent – or at least, where (and how) you can hear it.

As part of this year’s “Out of Bounds” theme, companies have been sharing ideas for both getting new people into the opera house, and more and more, getting opera out into the community.

“The opera field I think has for a long time been very venue-focused, as if unless the activity takes place in our opera house, it really isn’t opera or really isn’t our programming,” says Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, an organization for U.S. companies. “We believe deeply that opera has the power to connect to people of all experience levels, people of all backgrounds and in different venues. It doesn’t have to be in the opera house.”

A number of companies have created programs around this idea, which function almost as companies within the company, producing contemporary, collaborative, off-site or site-specific events, always with community engagement in mind.

In Philadelphia, the company has rebranded, restructured, and reduced the number of annual operas in its main venue – a grand 155-year-old opera house. As a result, it has not only managed to weather the recession without losing subscribers – while long-established companies in cities such as Baltimore, Orlando and Hartford, Connecticut have closed – but has ignited philanthropy. Its (balanced) budget has gone from $8.5-million (U.S.) in 2010-11 to $10.5-million this season.

More importantly, it has increased what the company’s General Director and President David Devan calls its civic footprint. The company presents free HD simulcasts to Independence Mall – home of the Liberty Bell; it’s developing what Devan calls a “theatrical mash-up” with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a co-production of Salome that will place the orchestra in the centre of the stage with sets built around them; and later this year will announce an Opera in the City program that will see the company collaborate with other artistic organizations to produce, say, an a cappella opera for the Fringe Festival.

Video clips from the company’s Random Acts of Culture campaign have attracted more than 12 million views on YouTube. As part of the initiative, choristers performed Handel at Macy’s, Mozart at IKEA, Verdi at an iconic Philly cheesesteak joint in a sort of high-culture flash mob.

“This civic footprint’s pretty engrained in what we’re doing because we’re firing on all these cylinders. It’s like trying to become like a multichannel opera company in a multichannel universe,” says Devan, who was born in Toronto and is a veteran of the Canadian Opera Company and Pacific Opera Victoria.

Some of these events have the potential to translate into ticket sales. While it may be free to take in the opera at the ballpark, participants register ahead of time by e-mail, giving the opera access to thousands of potential new operagoers. Shilvock says the baseball events have ultimately resulted in more than $1.8-million (U.S.) in ticket revenue from first-time patrons.

“They are all people who went to an opera at the baseball stadium and who we had not engaged with before,” he says. “So we’ve really been able to show that this is a good investment for the company, but I think more than that it’s the sense of openness that it creates within the community.”

Indeed, the concept is increasingly being thought of less as a gateway and more as an objective.

“The traditional opera house is a building that comes filled with preconceived notions,” says Scorca. “This just broadens the appeal of opera, it breaks down the stereotypic notion that opera is long, old, European. No, opera can be woven into the fabric of a city, reaching different audiences in different venues and some of these new audience members may not go to the opera house. They may wait for this kind of alternative activity. And I should probably stop calling it alternative.”

There’s been a huge appetite for the live HD broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera to movie theatres. And while they too take opera out of bounds and get people talking about the art (often with complementary events led by the local opera company), they also pose a challenge, says Scorca.

“The Met transmissions place a real pressure on opera companies to make sure that the live performance experience is sufficiently compelling to justify the price differential between the movie-theatre experience and the opera-house experience,” he says.

The list of dependable box-office hits is shrinking. Scorca, after a dinner with opera directors last week in Vancouver, reports hearing that operas such as Rigoletto, Faust, Lucia di Lammermoor and even Tosca are no longer sure-fire audience bets.

Contemporary opera, while more of a box-office risk, can also attract a whole new audience: younger and potentially more ethnically diverse. For example, Tea: A Mirror of Soul, Vancouver Opera’s current production, may appeal to the city’s vast Asian population.

“We’re all trying to do the things that everybody’s talking about: finding new audiences, finding our role in various communities, trying to do different kinds of work. Everybody’s doing some version of Tea,” says James Wright, general director of Vancouver Opera, host company for the conference. He says there are numerous examples of Canadian companies subscribing to this “out of bounds” ethic. Calgary Opera, for example, will put on Opera in the Village this summer, performing The Pirates of Penzance in a tent in a developing urban neighbourhood. “The challenge is building long-term audiences over a period of time and gaining the trust of the new audiences we want for the right reasons; not as lifesavers or quick fixes; that whatever’s done is authentic and genuine.”

Opéra de Montréal’s recent production of the contemporary opera Dead Man Walking, inspired by the film, was not only a critical and commercial success, it brought in an opera administrator’s dream audience: 43 per cent of single ticket holders were new to the company.

As the company demonstrates, even the promotion of opera is moving out of bounds, beyond a simple ad in the newspaper and into the realm of social media or guerrilla tactics. Its campus ambassador program, where post-secondary students are enlisted to spread the word about opera (some of whom had never before seen an opera), has been a huge success, responsible in part for this stunning statistic: Last year 27 per cent of Opéra de Montréal’s audience was under 30.

“I feel that we have to empower consumers to sell opera in their own ways,” says Guillaume Thérien, Director Sales and Marketing.

Scorca is frank about opera’s many challenges. But he also seems genuinely excited about its future. “I think opera is experiencing the most creative period it’s ever experienced in the last half-century; certainly I would say forever on this continent. …. “There is still huge audience interest in this multimedia art form called opera.”

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