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Charlotte arts groups want to go beyond the favorites to win fans

October 09, 2012

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    October 09, 2012
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    Press
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    Opera Carolina News

Charlotte arts groups want to go beyond the favorites to win fans

The greatest hits of music, ballet and Broadway bring people flocking to the box office.

Puccini operas, Beethoven symphonies, “Nutcracker” and “Les Misérables” help fill the coffers of performing groups in Charlotte and across the country. But the people who bring them to you think there’s a limit.

They can’t just recycle the hits in perpetuity. The groups’ future – and that of their art forms – depends on giving audiences fresh experiences.

Whether it’s the Charlotte Symphony playing a short piece by a contemporary Argentine composer, Blumenthal Performing Arts helping produce the acrobatic “Traces” or N.C. Dance Theatre spotlighting its own choreographers, they’re all trying to introduce something new – or at least new to Charlotte.

On Saturday, Opera Carolina will open its season with Puccini’s “Tosca.” This time, the company hopes to harness Puccini’s popularity in a new way.

Opera Carolina plans to perform all of Puccini’s operas by 2017, from the ever-popular “Tosca” and “La Bohème” to some that have never been seen in Charlotte – including a couple that are hardly ever seen anywhere.

The strategy is simple: The company hopes audiences’ affection for Puccini’s well-known operas, full of luscious tunes and high-powered theatrics, will encourage them to sample the rest.

The goal is to show audiences there are great operas that they would enjoy if they’d give them a try, says general director James Meena. If it works, it will keep audiences coming back for more. This is, he says, “what we have to do artistically to keep the company viable.”

Zeroing in on Puccini is “a way … to diversify the repertory without alienating the audience,” Meena says. “That’s quite a trick, quite honestly – especially in a city like Charlotte, where the audience admittedly is very conservative.”

Grumpy patrons

Since ticket buyers don’t register their aesthetic affiliations the way Republicans and Democrats sign up to vote, there are no statistics to demonstrate how conservative audiences may be. Meena uses another Puccini opera as an illustration of how tricky it is to introduce new things.

Last winter, Opera Carolina staged another Puccini favorite, “Madama Butterfly.” Rather than use a traditional set featuring a little white Japanese house – the heroine’s home – the company brought in sets and costumes with vivid colors and bold graphics designed by artist Jun Kaneko. Many viewers found them fresh and dramatic. But not everyone.

“We still have a good core of the audience that is extremely traditional,” Meena says. “Some of them really hated the Kaneko production of ‘Butterfly,’ and they’re skittish about the Kaneko ‘Magic Flute’ (in January). They keep coming, but they grumble.”

Christopher Warren-Green, the Charlotte Symphony’s music director, says he has gotten complaints about music by Sergei Prokofiev, a Russian whose ballets, concertos and symphonies are standard fare in many places.

Nevertheless, he thinks Charlotte is open to new things if they’re presented “in the right environment to the right audience.”

Room to experiment

“It’s amazing the different tastes people have,” Warren-Green says.

He plays to that in the orchestra’s KnightSounds series. Those concerts focus on themes rather than headline musical works. That gives him leverage to experiment.

The Sept. 28 installment, titled “The Power of the Song,” featured beloved tunesmiths from Handel to John Lennon. Warren-Green slipped in something by the much-less-familiar Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov: a dark-hued, soulful song based on an Emily Dickinson poem.

“A lot of people absolutely loved it – the drama of it,” says Warren-Green, who mingled with the audience afterward.

The challenge of luring audiences to try new things “is a national issue, not a local one,” says Tom Gabbard, president of Blumenthal Performing Arts. He had “far more difficulty” with conservative tastes in Denver than he has in Charlotte, he says in an email.

However adventurous a show is, he thinks the key is to make sure it’s the right size for the audience it can draw.

“A lot of what we do in the arts is a niche business and needs to be smartly scaled,” Gabbard says.

To him, the idea that Charlotte is more conservative than other cities is “pure bunk.”

“Those who say that are recounting Charlotte as they remember it in 1987 rather than (as it is) in 2012,” Gabbard says. “Look around, folks. Charlotte is a much more diverse, cosmopolitan city today.”

Old and new

While Blumenthal will this season bring back the super-popular “Les Misérables” for its fifth visit and “The Lion King” for its third, the Broadway Lights series also includes “Traces,” an action-packed show Blumenthal helped produce.

“Traces” gives audiences an entirely different experience from Broadway classics, Gabbard says, and he points to the all-dance “Edward Scissorhands” of 2007 as another show that broadened viewers’ horizons.

“It’s absolutely imperative that a company try to satisfy varying appetites,” arts consultant Margaret Genovese says.

While that applies to groups of all types, Genovese – who advises opera companies across North America – uses opera as her example.

Yes, she says, some people are happy to keep seeing their favorites. Others, once they’ve seen the hit operas, want to experience something else, or they will lose interest. People who begin as theater buffs – as Genovese did – are likelier to be drawn in by more contemporary, realistic operas rather than traditional ones that may seem farfetched. Young people are often the same way.

“The art form will die,” Genovese says, “if we don’t encourage broader participation.”

Welcoming surprise

Arts groups have to be careful. Even though they’ve expanded their audiences in recent years despite the recession, they can’t afford any costly flops at the box office, Warren-Green notes.

They need the revenue the hits provide. That’s why Beethoven’s Ninth, “Tosca” and “Les Miz” are headed our way this season, and “Nutcracker” is part of every N.C. Dance Theatre season.

But NCDT also introduces a steady stream of new works by its own choreographers or guests. Artistic director Jean Pierre Bonnefoux thinks the premieres often grab viewers more powerfully than old standbys.

“That sense of surprise – I think that’s what you need,” Bonnefoux says.

“If you know what to expect, you’re not engaged as much. But if the work surprises you … I think it uses a different part of the brain,” he says, laughing. “It stays with you more. Because those pieces can touch you directly. And sometimes a classic can just be a classic.”

By Steven Brown The Charlotte Observer

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