Bigger Audiences for Opera

THE decade of the '80s was a boom time for opera in America: Audience attendance grew, a trend arts leaders expect will continue if companies maintain and improve their commitment to solid artistry and fund-raising skills. ``From what we can determine, opera is the fastest growing [classical] art form in the country,'' says Robert Cannon, executive director of Boston Opera Theatre. ``There's enormous interest.''

Total attendance for main season and festival performances of opera increased 60 percent between 1983 and 1988 (from about 2.4 million to almost 4 million), according to OPERA America's most recent profile of 95 professional, member companies.

The widespread use of surtitles (projections of English translations of lyrics above the stage) has ``made a great deal of difference in the acceptability of opera in America,'' says Ardis Krainik, president of OPERA America and general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Most every company now uses surtitles, a practice that came into vogue in the mid-'80s, she says.

Television is responsible, too, says John Moriarty, director of New England Conservatory Opera Theater and artistic director of Central City Opera in Colorado.

The airing of Wagner's entire ``Ring'' cycle on PBS last year reached more viewers ``than had ever seen `The Ring' in its entire history,'' he says. The PBS series ``Great Performances'' has shown more than 65 complete operas in the past 16 years.

``Good opera feeds more opera, and creates demand. That's what been happening,'' Mr. Moriarty adds.

The number of world premi`eres continued to rise, reaching 13 in 1987-88, twice the number from the season before. Among those were ``The Fall of the House of Usher,'' by Philip Glass and Arthur Yorinks, presented by Kentucky Opera, and ``Nixon in China,'' by John Adams and Alice Goodman, at the Houston Grand Opera.

`TEN or 15 years ago, it was almost unheard of for any opera company to do a new work,'' says Mr. Cannon. ``Now, ... even the old hide-bound traditional companies are doing lots of new American and European works every year.''

But OPERA America's survey also discovered that professional opera companies in 1987-88 experienced the severest aggregate deficit of the past five years. Nearly half of them operated in the red. Running an opera company is ``more difficult than a theater or symphony or ballet, because it combines so many different elements,'' says Ms. Krainik. ``When one thing goes wrong, it all goes wrong.''

To offset the risks, administrators will need to look seriously at their fund-raising capability and how they manage money, says Krainik, who is credited with saving the Lyric Opera of Chicago from financial disaster back in 1987.

Success for the '90s goes beyond merely providing brand-new works or simply giving audiences what they want. ``Artistic excellence must be the first point,'' the highest priority, says Krainik.

Healthy ticket sales are directly linked to the quality of the artistic product, not repertoire. ``It's got to be wonderful singing,'' she says.

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