Building to a Crescendo

Dallas Opera was once the toast of the nation. Now it is reaching for that high note again.

"We're still building on the orchestra, and you're never home on anything like that," he says. "You constantly have to improve."

John Dizikes, a professor of American studies at University of California at Santa Cruz and author of the recently published comprehensive history, Opera in America, says that whatever the size of the company, whether it's the Met or the Milwaukee Opera (which has a new home that seats only 350), that opera needs to provide a more diverse product for a more diverse audience to survive in the long haul. And indeed, Dallas Opera has, of late, made attempts to shed the image that opera is the domain of the elite and the blue-haired.

It has launched the Puppet Opera Theater for elementary school kids; this year's "production," as it were, is Dallas composer Robert X. Rodriguez' Monkey See, Monkey Do!, based on a Mexican folk tale, and it will make the rounds in more than 60 local schools. Two years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded a $150,000 grant to Dallas Opera (the San Francisco Opera and Opera Delaware won similar grants) for the education-driven "Music! Words! Opera!"

And as part of its mission statement--which promises to "[enrich] the life of the community and [embrace] its diverse cultural heritage"--Dallas Opera has begun several so-called community outreach programs that introduce opera to Hispanic, African-American, and Asian audiences; programs such as the 3-year-old Adelante, the newly formed African-American Advisory Committee (boosted in December by a huge donation from EDS), and the Asian Task Force provide season tickets to potential operagoers who feel alienated or simply uninformed about an art that has been traditionally the realm of the white and wealthy.

But it is no small irony that as part of its fund-raising and awareness programs, the African-American Advisory Committee is selling tickets to Porgy and Bess, written by two white men.

"Our mission is that the Dallas Opera is committed to producing opera of uncompromising artistic quality, and I've addressed that part of it," Karayanis says. "And it's also to enrich the life of the community and embrace its rich cultural heritage. And when I talk about enriching the life of the community, we, as a cultural asset to this community, are enriching it through our productions and performances."

It is also the function of the regional company to expand not only the audience, but the art itself. And, as Dizikes points out, companies such as Dallas and Houston are indeed furthering the opera by offering new operas that may eventually help to broaden the accepted repertoire.

For instance, both Texas companies have commissioned new operas in recent years: Dominick Argento's The Aspern Papers debuted here in 1988 and was later televised to rave reviews on PBS, and John Adams' similarly acclaimed Nixon in China premiered in Houston a year before. This season, the Dallas Opera presented the Southwest premiere of Argento's The Dream of Valentino, a biography of Rudolf Valentino co-produced with the Washington Opera.

Of course, pioneering opera is not always good opera. Valentino was greeted with lukewarm reviews even before it was presented here in January. A full year before, when the Argento-composed opera debuted at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., it was panned by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

"Let me tell you what my dream of dreams is," Karayanis says. "I'd love nothing better than to see a contemporary opera festival, where you do nothing but contemporary works. Now, we don't have the money for it, there isn't any subsidy for it, but I think it would be very exciting to do a small festival of contemporary works. That could be fabulous. Just think what it would do for encouraging new compositions, and we might do a commissioned work every year. But no, there's really nobody in this country who can really afford to do that."

But innovation takes shape not only in new operas (few of which, as Littlejohn notes, make the cut or even have more than one run), but also in fresh perspectives of time-tested hits. Imaginative interpretations can be as shocking as setting Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in a New York skyscraper, as avant director Peter Sellars has done, or as subtle as having singers who are better actors.

Graeme Jenkins hopes that, under his leadership, the Dallas Opera will give "another look at the masterpieces" and is striving to balance the expectations of die-hard buffs with new ideas that might draw an audience that would otherwise dismiss opera as stodgy and outdated.

More than infusing old operas with topical issues, inventive stagings like Sellars' have helped to break down preconceptions that opera is elitist and to reveal the art's connection to popular culture. From Jenkins' perspective, a modern opera like The Dream of Valentino and its story of how icons are built up and destroyed should be "highly relevant" for an "enormous, well-off youthful population looking for something to do."

But opera itself is in a "growth phase" right now, as Smith and Scorca insist. A recent study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts indicates that of all the performing arts--including theater or dance--opera is the most rapidly growing. Almost every major city in the country has at least one opera company (Chicago, for instance, has two), and the number of performances and productions nationally has grown substantially over the past decade. Perhaps most important, opera has seduced a younger, more diverse audience--one that's between 18 and 24 years old. As Smith jokes, "It's not like the audience could get any older."

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