Building to a Crescendo

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

The reason for this potential growth is that opera has simply become a larger part of the pop culture. The wildly successful Broadway productions of such shows as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables are merely opera performed in English, lowbrow masquerading as highbrow.

The Three Tenors in Concert album--featuring Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and Jose Carreras--sold more than a million copies and went all the way to number four on the Billboard pop charts, saddled alongside Nirvana and the Eagles. And, if one needed further proof of Pavarotti's status as pop icon, he is booked into Reunion Arena--the venue of Sting and Neil Diamond. Opera is even packaged in rock music videos, which have cut and pasted the grand spectacle into three-minute segments.

"Opera has registered the most encouraging growth among younger people," Scorca gushes, "because opera really is the classical [music] manifestation of today's multimedia pop culture. If you look at music videos, which are words expanded by music further expanded by images, the raw material of today's pop music video is the raw material of opera. It's a multimedia musical expansion of the spoken word.

"I think there's a natural resonance between what young people are enjoying in their entertainment forms today and what opera has to offer. For me, the bit that I have seen on film of what Madonna does in concert is nothing but good news for opera."

Still, no matter how clever or pertinent a work might be, nothing seems to capture the attention of a larger public like a star. Along with the innovations, Jenkins acknowledges the importance of bringing in opera's superstars. After all, Pavarotti will command a Reunion Arena-size audience in February, and the loudest buzz in years about the Dallas Opera was generated by the anticipated appearance--and subsequent cancelation--of mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.

Bartoli canceled her appearance in the Dallas Opera's mid-December production of Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella) because she injured her knee during a November performance in Zurich, then fell ill with bronchitis. And that cancellation all but ruined the Dallas Opera's season--detracting from other presentations, casting a pall where there should have been only rousing applause.

The entire 1994-1995 season was built upon Bartoli's appearance here, with most of the ad revenue going to promote her, and it generated such excitement that opera fans from as far as away as Los Angeles and Nashville ordered tickets to catch a glimpse of the burgeoning superstar. To those who read headlines and know only the names of the opera world's most famous performers, of which Bartoli is one, her failure to appear here this season after so much hype hinted at some sort of failure on the opera's part.

Karayanis insists Bartoli's cancellation and the considerable coverage it received indicate "there's no such thing as bad news." After all, he says, it raised awareness about the company among an audience that perhaps did not know of, or care about, its existence.

But it may have also alienated a huge chunk of its supporters. Dallas Opera publicist Brian Chapman says the company received an enormous amount of calls from people who demanded their money back; even more phoned to vent their anger at Bartoli's cancellation, feeling they had been misled. (No refunds, however, were granted. Each ticket bore a disclaimer that offers the company an out should a featured performer not show.)

It was certainly quite a coup for Dallas to book Bartoli (who was featured in last season's The Barber of Seville), especially because her performances here in the lead role of Rossini's Cinderella were to be her only opera dates in the United States this season. Yet Bartoli decided to perform in Dallas this season not because of her affinity for the Music Hall--it's no secret she dislikes the place--but because Dallas Opera was the first company in the country that expressed interest in featuring her as a star.

"Dallas was on the forefront and this is one of the first contracts she had in the United States. I guess they heard her and they realized her potential and booked her," says Bartoli's manager, Jack Mastroianni.

Bartoli has said she will again appear with the Dallas Opera in the future. However, her next Dallas appearance will be a concert with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on October 2 in the Meyerson.

Still, for Dallas to bet its season on a star was a dangerous gamble. "I was aware of the publicity caused by the Bartoli cancellation," says Patrick Smith. "The whole opera world was aware of it. It's often a problem when you depend on a star. That is why many opera companies now get younger singers and like to say, 'We found them first'--as Dallas did with Bartoli."

Smith says he's still waiting to assess the fallout from the Bartoli cancellation. "If you have subscriber base that believes in the company, and the star is an added attraction but is not integral to the season, then you will see renewal," he says. "But if the people are coming for the star and the star doesn't come, then the audience will not come back."

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