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Susanne Mentzer Headshot

Following Through

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I had never spent much time in Kansas City, and was only here briefly to judge the regional Metropolitan Opera auditions and another time to eat great BBQ on the summer commute from Chicago to Aspen Music Festival and School.

For the past three weeks I have been in rehearsals for Mozart's Così fan tutte at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. It is my 12th production of this opera. It is amazing that after singing for thirty years it is still possible to make my debut. We open this weekend in the wonderful new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

The arts are big here. Not only is it a beautiful city, apparently second to Rome in the number of fountains, there are also beautiful large turn-of-the-last-century homes and gorgeous boulevards with green spaces. It is home to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Located as it is on the border of Kansas and Missouri, this city serves two states. Kansas recently eliminated arts funding and as a result it is not even allowed to file for NEA Funding -- a sad state of affairs.

With more than 65 performing arts organizations, there are abundant performing arts spaces of all sizes, including quite a few beautifully restored old theaters, and a growing warehouse arts district. The opera uses newly refurbished warehouse for rehearsals and preparation of costumes, wigs, and scenery. Apparently this is the first year this has been in existence and conveniently coincides with the opening of the new arts center. It is thought that the arts groups here will rise with the Kauffman.

You cannot miss the Kauffman. It sits up on a hill and depending on your perspective, right behind, or before the Bartle Hall Convention Center which is also quite eye-catching with large pylon towers topped by sculptures designed by artist R.M. Fisher, called "Sky Stations." At first I thought these towers were a part of the Kauffman because at a distance they blend in. My first impression from the lobby was that it resembled Dulles Airport with the sweeping open glass front. There are the ingeniously designed stage houses -- the area that includes the fly loft or stage area that in conventional spaces looks like large boxes. (Touring with Texas Opera Theater my husband-to-be technical director never failed to find the theaters because of these obvious hulking stage houses.) Here they are covered to look like giant metal sails. Some liken it to the Sydney Opera House. They soar and unfurl changing color with the time of day. One evening they were glowing red in honor of the KC chiefs. During the day it is a sparkling reminder of the possibilities of this vibrant city located smack dab in the center of our country.

Before I even rehearsed in this building I attended a sold-out concert of the Brahms Requiem with the KC Symphony and Chorus in Helzberg Hall. What a hall. The stage is so large it makes the orchestra seem small. The choir loft when filled is a stunning site, and behind it looms a huge organ. Another great aspect is the feeling of intimacy produced by the seating plan. It is all encased in the warm blanket of wood. The evening was quite uplifting with great music. Seeing a full audience was so gratifying. I find it miraculous that in today's economy a building like this is even possible.

We had our final dress yesterday morning in the theater next door. The only time I have had a morning dress rehearsal was while at the Met where, due to the performances each evening, stage rehearsals are at 11 AM. Here in K.C. we began at 10 AM after having had a first orchestra dress the evening before. We were there even earlier for makeup. I joked that we should have just slept in costume. Needless to say, caffeine was in order.

I arrived to the sight of multiple yellow school buses lined up outside.

The auditorium was filled with kids. They turned out to be the best audience I have heard in a long time, making the caffeine redundant. These kids were primed. Some of the singers had visited their schools to talk about the opera. This cast -- myself and Don Alfonso aside -- is young and just starting their careers. They are quite wonderful, attractive and no doubt were a great asset to the pre-event warm up. The students all cheered, yelled, laughed, and gave us so much energy. We felt like rock stars. This theater is one of a very few in the US that has a LED super title system on the back of every seat so there was nothing lost in translation.

Many opera companies host students at rehearsals. Some grants are awarded to produce works only if an educational component is implemented. For example, The Houston Grand Opera has an evening performance for high school kids.They make an event of it dressing to the nines.

I cannot help but think there has to be a way to continue to follow through. It is wonderful to expose youth en masse to the arts, but why not start allocating a certain number of free tickets for other performances? No doubt few of the parents can afford to attend, what with saving money for college and normal living expenses. Maybe they could have a "take your parents to the opera night" with tickets for these children to come back with their family.

Yes, opera is expensive to produce. For an average middle class person it is quite costly to attend a live performance. (I actually lowered my fee as a favor to this company. It does not seem to be the time to price gouge and if having me appear will help a company stay afloat, then we both benefit.) If we want to support the arts, let's make them affordable and accessible. (Surely part of the Met Opera's high-def streaming success is the low price of a ticket.) There must be a happy medium between the ultra-expensive production values and affordable, relevant performances.

Of course, the arts funding dilemma always seems to come down not only to "how" but moreover "why fund at all?" A friend of mine started a foundation called the S.T.A.R. Foundation of Monterey County in CA. (Support Theater Arts Regionally). It gives money to schools and theater groups to help them realize projects -- everything from equipment to subsidizing tickets -- and hopes to eventually branch out to music and dance. Reg Huston, the founder and executive director writes:

Many studies show that participation in and expression through the arts helps to develop a young person's thinking skills and overall behavior. As the student's awareness of his/her own identity and environment are explored, their capacity to understand the world around them becomes increasingly beneficial to society as a whole. The S.T.A.R. Foundation of Monterey County hopes to reach out to the individual providing the stage whereby personal discovery can occur. Schools and educational programs provide a vital vehicle for this growth but often times the financial support for the continuity of these programs is either insufficient or not forthcoming... S.T.A.R. believes that the discovery of one's personal strengths and identity is the key to cooperative societal interaction. Participation through multi-cultural theatrical programs is an important aspect in understanding all people and ethnicities.

Let's invest in our kids with affordable accessible arts experiences for the greater good of our society -- not a novel idea by any means, but a valid and easily realized one.