LIFESTYLE

Opera houses in the U.S., struggling for survival, sing to Latino audiences

Many fear opera as a genre may soon be singing its swan song.

In the U.S., for sure, the new millennium has been less than kind to the so-called bel canto, born more than five centuries ago. A dozen opera companies have closed across the country since 2009 and many more are in dire financial straits.

Now, struggling opera companies that once focused on attracting the moneyed elite are trying to diversify their audiences.

“People like to see themselves, or a reflection of themselves, in an art form,” Wayne S. Brown, president and CEO of Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit, told Fox News Latino.

In an era when the genre seems less relevant and its core audience is aging, he said, operas must attract new patrons to survive, reaching out to culturally and economically diverse members of communities who have traditionally been excluded.

“For too many years, opera companies were not only saddled with an elitist, out-of-date image, they positively encouraged it,” said Keith Cerny, general director and CEO of the Dallas Opera, in an article he wrote last year. Opera companies, he noted, have brought these troubles upon themselves.

In an effort to change the script, some of the top opera houses in the U.S. are starting to include some less familiar works among the go-to standards — works aimed at the local communities, mostly Latino, where new opera lovers are yet to be discovered.

A close look at this year's calendar shows that 2015 will likely be a banner year for Latinos and opera.

In January, Nashville Opera in Tennessee staged a production of “Florencia en el Amazonas,” a work by the late Mexican composer Daniel Catán inspired by the writing of Gabriel García Márquez. Non-Spanish-speaking opera-goers could follow the story reading supertitles in English, as they do with operas in other languages.

“Florencia,” which premiered almost two decades ago at the Houston Grand Opera, was the first Spanish-language opera commissioned by major U.S. opera houses —  it was co-commissioned by the Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle Operas.

In March, Lyric Opera of Chicago will host the world premiere of “El Pasado Nunca Se Termina,” a mariachi opera that will also be performed at The San Diego Opera, and also in March, Michigan Opera Theatre will put on Robert Xavier Rodriguez's “Frida,” based on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

“Our Latino audience is growing,” says David DiChiera, Michigan Opera Theatre's founder and artistic director, “and we are dedicated to programming that speaks to that audience.”

Though the Michigan Opera Theatre does not collect demographic data about the race or ethnicity of its audience members, DiChiera's colleague, Wayne S. Brown, the president and CEO of Michigan Opera Theatre, says they are seeing much more interest in and demand for programming that is directly relevant to Latinos during focus groups, and their counterparts at other opera companies report the same.

However, connoisseurs say, a lot of Latinos still have to be convinced that opera is relevant to them.

“It's about inclusion and engagement,” Michigan Opera’s Brown explained. With the upcoming “Frida” production, Brown and his staff have planned nearly 30 activities and events apart from the opera itself that are intended to, as director DiChiera said, “take opera to where people are.” Half of those events are free, with the aim being to introduce opera and its relevance to an audience that might not be familiar with it.  

Brown and DiChiera have also worked hard to ensure that Michigan Opera Theatre's culturally diverse programming is relevant to the Detroit community in other ways. For a city that has faced such serious financial hardship in recent years, the opera's activities need to be not only financially accessible to prospective patrons; they also need to contribute to the local economy.

To that end, the opera has partnered with three local restaurants, drawing attention to up-and-coming chefs who have devised special menus in conjunction with the “Frida” production. Collaborating with community stakeholders is crucial, say opera staff, building goodwill and creating win-win situations for everyone.

Other opera companies around the U.S. are implementing similar approaches, bringing opera into communities through school partnerships, collaborations with other arts institutions, and family events. And they are drawing Latino audiences in through inclusive casting (namely, selecting singers who themselves are Latino or Latin American), diversifying the membership of their boards of directors, and scheduling a production's performances across multiple venues.

The Michigan Opera Theatre's “Frida,” for example, will be performed at different venues in three counties, in an effort to reach the widest audience possible. The Lyric Opera of Chicago is taking the same approach, with performances of “El Pasado Nunca Se Termina” being offered at three separate venues during its March 2015 run.

Yet not every opera company feels it needs to diversify to become relevant. Some of the country's most renowned opera companies are sticking to their core audiences.

But, some say, that could soon change. Latino-run opera houses such as Opera Hispanica in New York City, and operas with robust Hispanic audience development initiatives, among them, Philadelphia's Center City Opera Theater, are proving that programming for Latinos can be sustainable.

While legacy operas continue to anchor the calendars of most major opera companies, benefactors and patrons are increasingly saying they want diverse programming. The operas that survive are the ones that will be willing to give it to them, experts say.

“As we contemplate the next historical phase of a 400-year old art form, we must be prepared to rethink, reinvent, renew—and yes, rage—against the underestimated threats of complacency and redundancy,” Cerny of the Dallas Opera wrote last year. “Opera remains the most elaborate and multi-faceted of all art forms, and one worthy of a full renaissance.”

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a freelance writer living in Havana.

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