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Summer Festivals: Finding a Way to Shine During the Dark Months
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Opera America Magazine6/1/2008

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A similar challenge is felt by opera companies across North America, of course; all but a handful offer fewer than 50 mainstage performances each year. Compared with other cultural organizations that welcome the public five or six days a week, such as museums or libraries, opera companies can seem somewhat inaccessible.

Summer festivals, with their concentrated seasons, are acutely aware of this problem. Many have responded with a concerted effort to think outside the theater — and to demonstrate that an opera company can deliver continuing value in a variety of ways. Their creative and varied approaches to communitybuilding can serve as an inspiration to all companies, regardless of performance schedule.

Off-Season? What Off-Season?
Not surprisingly, one of the primary ways opera festivals stay visible through the year is by producing opera. The productions are often on a different scale and in different venues than summer offerings, but that can be a good thing.

"We are actually in Indianola, which qualifies as a suburb community of Des Moines, but with 12 miles of farmland between us, we're not always perceived that way," says Des Moines Metro Opera's Michael Egel, who serves as artistic administrator and director of education. Egel notes that for nine months of the year, "we're trying to get ourselves into Des Moines proper as much as possible." In addition to small-scale community events and performances, the company offers occasional full-scale productions in the Des Moines Civic Center. "It is nice because it is an almost 3,000-seat house, much bigger than our summer performance space," says Egel. This allows the company to perform works, like Aida, that would not be appropriate for its intimate summer home. They are also able to access a different pool of artists, because artists only need to commit to a couple of performances.

"For years we have done peripheral programming outside our season, and we almost never do it in Music Hall," says Cincinnati Opera General Director Patty Beggs, who feels it is valuable for the company to be seen in different neighborhoods and to reach diverse audiences around Cincinnati. For the past 10 years, the company has drawn enthusiastic crowds for its family operas, which have included Different Fields, by former all-pro football player Mike Reid; Rise for Freedom: The John P. Parker Story, which focuses on a local hero of the Underground Railroad; and a new version of Hans Krása's Brundibár.

Events for families are popular attractions in many communities. Fort Worth Opera scheduled a holiday performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors last year, and all five performances — presented in a local Hispanic neighborhood — sold out. According to General Director Darren Keith Woods, the production got more press than anything the company has ever done. Just before The Santa Fe Opera opens its summer season, the company offers a month-long run of a one-hour opera in downtown venues, using both young artists and local talent. "People just flock to them," says Joyce Idema, the company's director of press and public relations. "They get something very clever and very funny for only $10."

Many summer festivals, including Cincinnati Opera, The Santa Fe Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera and Berkshire Opera, put together a small touring company that performs in community venues and schools throughout the region. Most years, Opera North's (Lebanon, NH) education program tours for seven weeks and plays to an audience of 25,000 — more people than the company otherwise reaches all year.

The off-season allows opera companies to diversify their programming. Lake George Opera at Saratoga has a regular program at Caffè Lena, a well-established Saratoga Springs coffeehouse that was recently named best small venue in North America by the International Folk Alliance. While the opera's coffeehouse programs have some connection to mainstage offerings, they are also planned with the regular Caffè Lena audience in mind. For instance, the summer 2008 season will include Michael Ching's Buoso's Ghost. The composer, who resides in Memphis, is also an active songwriter, and he will present a program of folk and country music.

A significant portion of Glimmerglass Opera's (Cooperstown, NY) patron base lives outside the Cooperstown area. For these individuals, the company plans eight to 10 programmed events each year, many in Albany or New York City. Typically hosted by members of the company's National Council, the programs usually feature alumni of the Young American Artists Program. "Many of these singers already have a following," says Director of Institutional Advancement Joan Desens, "and a lot of the attendees enjoy greeting and talking with them." The company also began presenting regular programs at Manhattan's Morgan Library & Museum in 2006.

Young artists frequently play a starring role in off-season events, ranging from holiday concerts to sporting events. The Santa Fe Opera packs the house for its annual free holiday concert at St. Francis Cathedral, a large church in downtown Santa Fe. PORTopera (Portland, ME) offers three "Sunset Serenades" each year, usually in private homes. The programs feature successful former young artists such as Ashley Emerson, who began in PORTopera's chorus, moved up to Young Artist, and is now a member of the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. Two years ago, when Maine native Kate Aldrich returned for a recital, the company rented a theater and hired a string quartet for a sold-out concert featuring the fast-rising star.

Summer festivals are not the only ones producing performances and events outside the regular subscription season, of course. According to the Professional Opera Survey, OPERA America members saw nearly $20 million in income from non-mainstage performances — which are typically offered at low cost or even free — in 2006. However, the income — and even the effect on the box office — is a secondary concern: "Some of these people don't ever go to the mainstage," says Beggs. "We think that's OK. The mandate is for more opera."

Please, Put Your Daughter on the Stage!
Noël Coward famously cautioned against it, but opera companies find that by creating opportunities for young performers, they not only give back to the community, they gain considerable press attention. "Our area is very fragmented — there are tons of little suburban communities of 5,000 to 8,000 people, and many of them have their own newspapers," says Steve Kelley, director of marketing at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL). In many cases, he finds that it's not the international star on the mainstage who sells papers, it's the talented local high school student.

These performances draw an audience, too — OTSL's youth opera typically plays to about 5,000 people. According to Director of Education and Outreach Allison Felter, the production is fully professional: "Our approach is very much patterned after the mainstage." The company puts out a "cattle call" through music teachers at schools within a 100-mile radius of the company, and the students are joined by a few professional adult singers and a chamber orchestra. The youth operas are performed in a variety of venues, which Felter says is "a kind of advantage, because showing up in a new neighborhood is a g
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