Opera in the Spotlight

Jul 9, 2013

Violist Elan Sapir practicing at Castleton Festival
Credit Suri Xia

It’s no secret that opera in America is struggling.  In 2008, only eight percent of adults said they liked opera, and only two percent had been to one in the past year, but here in Virginia that could be changing thanks to summer programs designed to build the base for opera.

It’s not unusual for opera goers to give long and enthusiastic ovations – for cast members to take bow after bow, but people who love this complex art form fear their audience may not always be there.

“The audience is very old, and it’s scary to think that in 20 years,  if the younger audience doesn’t come and participate and really become invested, then I don’t have a job!”

That’s Reyna Sawtell, a singer in the Castleton summer opera festival.  Each year, it draws hundreds of young musicians to Rappahanock County to rehearse and perform with guidance from one of the greats – Maestro Lorin Maazel.

Young artists like Zara Brock of Fredericksburg train here, and they clearly understand the appeal of opera.

“There something about classical everything – it’s just the basis.  Latin is the basis of languages, ballet is the basis for a lot of dance.  I see classical voice and classical music as the basis for almost all music, and there’s something so pure and refined about it.”

But it’s safe to say few American kids know that, so Castleton brings hundreds in to experience opera – among them Jeremiah Aida and Andrew Canavan from Culpepper, Beth Darcy from Nokesville and Erin Diamond from Manassas.

"I was thinking, oh man, this is probably going to be boring.  It’s just going to be a waste of my time, but it turs out for me – I actually enjoyed it.  It was really interesting, with amazing voices.  I think I’m definitely coming back for another one.  The way they portrayed the emotion – they really got across the message.  Even if you didn’t read the words, you could still understand.”

And when the performance is over, the kids get to meet the musicians, who have come from near and far. This exposure maybe increasingly important as school music programs are cut. "

"When I was 10 years old, I only wanted to hear Julie Andrews and Barbara Streisand and things. I was not interested in classical music, but I always had music in my life.  I sang in the church choir, I studied piano since the age of 6.”

Nancy Gustafson is Castleton’s General Manager.  She thinks music is essential to a rich and happy life.

“And I now see with my mother, who does not remember what city she is in, she can sit there and sing all the words to any of the Frank Sinatra songs.  She can sit down at the piano and play, and music is still in her head and in her heart.  It brings her to life every time.”

Like Castleton, Ash Lawn Opera in Charlottesville brings children to see the show, but it also takes the show to children – performing in nearby communities like Louisa, changing scripts and lyrics to create more approachable operas in English -- like the Barber of Cville or Our Boheme – a cross between La Boheme and Our Town. 

Singer Devone Tines says big city operas are moving to new neighborhoods and performance spaces to grow their audience.

“One of my good friends from school just started an opera company that performs in loft spaces in different cities, not theaters at all but spaces that are abandoned or you wouldn’t even expect to go to, so people get to experience this music in a really different way.”

And opera could grow in popularity because of performers like Tines and Sawtell – both African-Americans.  Michelle Kreisel marvels at the diversity of this year’s casts.

“We have an artist from Bangladesh, we have a singer whose family came from the Basque region, an Italian American, an Hispanic, and African-American, and for diversity we found one WASP.”

So far, she says, Ash Lawn’s efforts to broaden the appeal of opera seem to be working.

“We doubled the size of our opera audience in one year.  We doubled the number of children in the audience in a year, which means they’re bringing their 30 and 40-year-old parents.  We’ve expanded into the winter, and the holiday opera, Amal and the Night Visitors, not only sold out but 40% of the audience was brand new to us.”

And at Castleton, fundraiser Howard Bender says government support is growing. Summer opera has been good for rural Rappahanock County, with crowds coming in to dine, see a show and spend the night.  In Southside, carpenters have been hired to build the sets, and Bender says the state has recognized opera as an economic engine – something worthy of government grants.

“We started from a level of $5,000.  Last year was $43,000, and we were just notified that we got $77,000.  The National Endowment for the Arts have just increased our funding 71% from 2012.”

And Castleton has gone beyond U.S. boundaries to grow interest and revenues – taking a production to Oman and shopping future operas to other countries.  This summer, it will perform Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West, Otello and La Voix Humaine, while Ash Lawn presents La Boheme and tries one other way to popularize opera.  It is, of course, not the same, but Broadway is related -- sharing the pageantry and the power of music. Ash Lawn plans to present one of Broadway’s biggest hits -- Carousel.