I recently went to a performance of Mozart's Così fan tutte that was inspiring for several reasons. The most obvious was that the singers were all young, talented, "emerging" artists. They all are current or past participants in Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, a training program for post-graduate aspiring opera singers. One of the most important elements of this program is that at least one performance of an opera in WNO's season is performed with these young singers in the leading roles. This gives these aspiring artists invaluable stage experience, an opportunity to work with a professional orchestra and chorus, and the chance to work with professional directors and designers.
This staging of Così, by Jonathan Miller, was an updated modern-dress production that showcased beautifully the talents of these young artists.
But as excited as I was by the performance, I was more so by the audience: a large, enthusiastic group of people of all ages and backgrounds who had come to cheer on these performers. This group bore no resemblance to the traditional opera audience in demographics or in response to the performance. They laughed out loud (at appropriate places), cheered lustily at the end, and were truly engaged throughout.
As one might expect, the ticket prices for these young artist performances are always substantially lower than for those performances with the more experienced singers in the leading roles.
Whether it was owing to the younger singers, the updated production, the cheaper ticket prices, or all three factors, the audience was filled with younger people, including new opera goers with an energy of those who were enjoying the beauty and humor of Così for the very first time.
From now on, when I hear people say that opera is a dying art form, that it is outmoded, that young people could never enjoy it, that it is too long, or too serious, or too expensive, I will remember this performance of Così fan tutte.
In fact, opera is not too long or too serious: it is fun and beautiful and dramatic and inspiring when it is produced well, sung well, acted well and conducted well.
But it is too expensive. Major opera companies now regularly charge more than $100 per seat, on average, for their main stage productions. This is simply more than most people, of any age, can afford once a year, let alone regularly. And it is with regular attendance at opera, or ballet, or symphony performances that we gain a knowledge and passion for an art form that make us the subscribers and donors and board members of the future.
As we charge more and more for our tickets to cover the costs of inflation and to reduce the pressure on our fundraising campaigns, we disenfranchise huge portions of our potential audience In fact, we become irrelevant to them.
In addition to inspiring me, this performance of Così fan tutte also challenged me: how do we bring this audience back to the opera more than once a year?