How can opera thrive? Just expose people, say two stars

NEW YORK - How can opera thrive in the modern era of instant and free entertainment? The solution, say two leading U.S.

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artists, is to expose people when they least expect it.

"Yes, we are in a critical time for opera. But I think for about 400 years opera has been at a critical point," mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato said.

DiDonato, among the most prominent Americans in opera, has starred in productions around the world but has also sought out non-traditional venues.

DiDonato recently performed at New York's top-security Sing Sing prison in a program to reach inmates, and said she was astounded at how much they identified with opera.

"In my experience, one of the most thrilling things to do is to put it in their face," she said of new audiences.

"Go to the most unexpected places and not sing crossover, not sing a pop version of something, but give them opera."

DiDonato was speaking Wednesday at New York's SubCulture club in a conversation with Rufus Wainwright, a successful pop singer who has turned to writing opera.

Wainwright recalled his five-night sold-out residency in 2011 at Covent Garden in London, saying that 75 percent of the people who attended had never been previously to the opera house.

"I believe there is a whole bunch of young people who really don't know what classical is, and they secretly hunger for it," he said.

He said that opera would benefit from more artists like him "because on the one hand we have new ideas, but we also just adore the history of it."

But Wainwright also warned against trying too hard to rebrand opera as "cool."

"I think an audience, especially a younger audience, the minute they have a sense that they are being tricked into coming to something or not given the full story of what's going on, it's a turn-off."

Struggles for opera companies

The opera and classical music industry has tried for years to rejuvenate its audiences, who are disproportionately older.

New York's Metropolitan Opera has been ambitious in its programming despite wrestling with labor disputes stemming from tight finances.

Other opera institutions in New York have faced more severe difficulties.

The New York City Opera, created as a more accessible alternative to the Met, went broke in 2013 although a group is seeking to revive "the people's opera," starting with a production next month of Puccini's "Tosca."

The Gotham Chamber Opera, another New York company that specialized in modern and intimate performances, suddenly shut down recently due to a budget deficit.

But DiDonato voiced optimism about opera's future, pointing to the rise of pop-up performances and events such as New York's Prototype festival, which presents new, experimental works.

'Take back opera'

Wainwright's first opera "Prima Donna," about a day in the life of a faded opera singer, opened in 2009 in Manchester, England.

He initially talked to the Met about premiering "Prima Donna" but hit an impasse, in part over Wainwright's insistence on writing it in French.

Wainwright's second opera "Hadrian" will premiere at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in its 2018-19 season.

Based on the life of the Roman emperor known for his cultural refinement, the opera will be in English with bits of Latin and Greek, Wainwright said.

"I feel confident enough now in that (opera) world to really focus on some very intense and complicated psychological and political things, which the Roman Empire always gives us in spades," he said.

Wainwright, speaking to AFP after the talk, said the reaction to "Prima Donna" was instructive to him -- some opera critics panned it, but he enjoyed wide praise from pop music writers.

"They don't have this weird, 'I shouldn't be liking this' attitude that a lot of the classical press has," he said.

DiDonato added that opera had come to be seen as an elite hobby, a preconception that she said did not exist decades ago.

"I think we have to take back the word 'opera' and not have it used as an apologetic... but to reclaim that word as something extraordinary," she said.


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