Opera program seeks new, returning audience this season

Josh Cooper | Staff Writer

Opera programs across the country have been facing struggles in light of the recent economic crisis, and many are seeing drastically lower attendance rates.

With the recent closing of several notable companies, like the Baltimore Opera Company, and the gloomy forecast for others, like the New York City Opera, many opera administrators are seeking ways to bring the art form to a new audience, without ostracizing the loyal.

Jay Lesenger, Chautauqua Opera Company’s artistic/general director, said this opera company is no exception.

“It’s always a balancing act of trying to maintain the core audience and yet attract new people to come either by doing new things or by doing them in new ways,” Lesenger said.

Lesenger said the two opera selections for this season, Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Verdi’s Luisa Miller, do well in this regard.

“We’re doing an update of Flute,” Lesenger said. “I’m setting it in the 1960s. I call it Mad Men meets ’60s sci-fi. We’re going to have a little fun with it. And Flute lends itself to all kinds of variations.”

With regard to the other selection, Luisa Miller, Lesenger said the curiosity of the Chautauqua opera patrons is a big advantage for his company.

“The nice thing about the audience here is that they’re so willing to try new things. Three thousand people showed up for Norma last year, and that’s not an opera that most people know,” he said. “There was great curiosity to see what the opera would do in the Amphitheater. I believe that audience will come back again and try something new.”

Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker said he agrees.

The Magic Flute is really a family opera. It’s full of fantasy, and it’s really one of the more accessible Mozart operas, and pretty widely done,” Becker said. “Luisa Miller isn’t done as often. It’s not an opera that’s commonly labeled for a wider audience. On the other hand, by placing the opera in the Amphitheater, we are de facto opening it up to a wider audience.”

Becker said the opera performances in the Amphitheater have become a family event for some.

“What we’re finding is that because of the accessibility of the Amphitheater, people will make an ‘opera evening’ of it across generations,” he said. “You’ll see sometimes every generational member of a family attending an opera for the first time.”

Last season was the first season the opera performed only two main-stage productions rather than the usual four. Other than that, Lesenger says very few cuts were made to the opera company.

“It was very important to maintain the integrity of the Young Artists program in particular,” Lesenger said. “I did not want to lose the experience for them, because without that it wouldn’t be as interesting a program; we wouldn’t be competitive with the other programs.”

He says he is optimistic about the future of opera at Chautauqua.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” he said. “I’m hopeful that if the economy will turn around and things stay stable with the endowment here, that we’ll be able to perhaps go back to doing more productions in future seasons.”