Operatic Pop: Knoxville Opera Company Attracts Younger, Mainstream Audiences

At age 31, Marshall Stair is in the bull's-eye of Knoxville Opera's new target-age demographic. His first "favorite opera" was Lucia de Lammermoor.

"It is about a crazy woman who goes on a killing rampage after her wedding," he says. "I think we can all relate to that."

"I was introduced to opera at an early age," Stair says, adding that one of KOC's outreach programs renewed his interest. "I really got back into opera through Opera After Hours, an organization dedicated to promoting opera to the younger generation. It is probably more like a committee than a formal organization.

"OAH has cocktail parties with live and spontaneous opera singing. It is a much more intimate way to way experience the art, plus you have an opportunity to talk with the singers right after they perform."

One trend in opera's favor is toward younger performers, who model their public relations energies on pop-music-style interaction rather than the gloved hand waving through the limousine window flavor, a la La Scala. Dan McGehee, chairman-elect of the Knoxville Opera Board of Directors, says that has helped Knoxville opera connect with younger Knoxvillians. McGehee says that more seasoned performers wouldn't be inclined to seek the kind of elbow-rubbing Stair describes and enjoys.

"We're finding more and more young people who find opera intriguing," McGehee says. "I think some of them love to come and just see the costumes and the things that take place on stage. I think they're intrigued by the music. And I think one of the things that they find is that most of the leads in these positions, especially the female parts, are all extremely young.

"The stars love to attend events before or after the performances, like our Opera After Hours. They'll take any opportunity to get out there and meet the public. Whereas some of the older performers, in their 40s or 50s, just don't have much interest in going out and attracting a crowd."

Stair is friends with Knoxville-based soprano Jessica Cates (appearing in The Barber of Seville this weekend). She has explained to him some of the shifts in attitude taking place in opera presentation.

"Opera is changing to appeal to a wider audience," Stair says. " For many years most operas were sung by large women, who mainly did the ‘park and bark'— that is, standing in one place and belting out a song. They had tremendous voices but they weren't much to look at and they didn't move around very much.

"Today many opera companies are casting more nimble singers who still have great voices, but have the ability to run around and add more drama to the show. Opera singers are like elite athletes. They have the ability to amaze people with their incredible talent, but instead of dunking a basketball, they are singing."

It will come as no surprise to learn that Knoxville Opera has also pursued new patrons through social networking, a world trafficked primarily by wired young people. Michael Torano, Knoxville Opera director of marketing and public relations, says that both the opera company and the Rossini Festival have their own identities across the spectrum. (Like everyone lately, Torano pronounces the word MySpace as a sigh with a question mark.)

"We've seen quite a change," Torano says. "Typically, more than 80 percent of the audience will be in their 60s and up. There's nothing scientific about these numbers, but the difference is definitely notable. Especially on Friday nights this season, the audience is more like 50/50—folks in their 60s or older, and folks in their 30s and 40s.

"Sundays have also changed. That day, and this season's operas, have proven to be very family friendly. The Sunday shows usually sell out. Pirates [of Penzance] sold out. It was spring break for the colleges in the area, and we had students buying these enormous blocks of seats."

Not for nothing has this season been light and bawdy fare. Torano says Brian Salesky, Knoxville Opera's executive director and conductor, chose a program intended to appeal to younger, and maybe first-time-at-the-opera, patrons. So there's no drowning of babies or lead baritones impaling themselves upon their own broadswords—or other tympani-roll-and-dry-ice opera staples. And it works.

"It's kind of unbelievable that tickets are selling so well," McGehee says. "We sold a lot more for Lucia than we had anticipated, even more for Pirates. And [The Barber of Seville] is already exceeding our expectations. We're at 98 percent of our projected goal, but we've got another week and a half. We'll probably sell about $30,000 more in tickets than we anticipated."

According to Torano, season subscriptions fell by 18 percent from 2008 to 2009, a decline easily attributed to the recession. But he says that single-ticket sales have more than made up for it.

Says McGehee, "Our challenge in East Tennessee is to provide culture that is as complete as we can have it—the symphony, the opera, the art museum, Clarence Brown Theatre, as well as our roots and some country music."

Stair agrees: The better things are in Knoxville, the better things are in Knoxville.

"Though opera is doing better in Knoxville, it could be even bigger," he says. "To continue to attract the top international talent to Knoxville, we need as many fans as possible. In addition, new people and young people bring new ideas on how and where to grow the art form."