Dallas Opera Redoubles Its Efforts

The company has made a major commitment to educational efforts and opera commissions

OF one thing is certain in these uncertain times, the face of opera is changing drastically. Operatic superstars are scarce; theatrical credibility is in some cases superseding vocal excellence as the top priority; and production costs continue to escalate into the budgetary stratosphere.

Clearly, the challenges to opera companies are enormous, and they must adapt to today's realities if they are to survive. One might think this would be a particular problem for a company like the Dallas Opera, which began life with a Maria Callas concert in 1957, when every tempestuous movement she made was a headline-grabbing event.

But, Dallas Opera General Director Plato Karayanis does not see this "legendary" start as a disadvantage. "It's amazing what tricks the distance of time will play on one's memory," he observes. "Callas, and the US debuts of Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe, Jon Vickers, Teresa Berganza, stage director Franco Zeffirelli, and all the others was very exciting. But there were [only] 35 professional opera companies in North America at the time. So there really wasn't a lot of operatic competition. Also, yo u were able to engage those artists on six months' notice."

He also points out that the Callas concert was a source of pride but sold less than 500 tickets, and that most of the above-named singers had no further relationship with the company.

But today the company is "trying to develop that sense of relationship," says Mr. Karayanis. "Take, for instance, Ruth Ann Swenson [who sang the title role in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" this season] - this will be the third time she's back with us. Renee Fleming made her debut in the role [of Tatyana] in Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" (See story, left.) she comes back to sing her first Jenufa next year, and we're already looking at things for which we can bring her back after that."

The heart of the Dallas Opera's current activities is brought to light in its mission statement, which was fully revised in May 1992. It begins with the statement: "The Dallas Opera is committed to producing opera of uncompromising artistic quality, enriching the life of the community and embracing its diverse cultural heritage."

Its repertoire is to include not only the standard classics but, more controversially, 20th-century works as well, including a commitment to commissioning new American works. Finally, the company is looking to further its talent pool by "discovering and nurturing exceptional young talent."

As part of this mission, Dallas Opera has taken on an enormous project called "Opera for the 21st Century." The company plans to commission three new American operas by the year 2000. Each season will have two 20th-century operas - one of which will be American - in the five-opera repertoire. This means that two-thirds of every season will be devoted to 20th-century works, which may be a big stretch for the conservative Dallas audiences.

If the company's expansion plans go as expected, the 1994-95 season may offer six performances of six operas - not an easy feat. Also, there are plans to increase the endowment fund by $5 million, establish a professional artist training program, and increase print and broadcast media exposure.

As this expansion is envisioned, so too is an active campaign to find a new audience. The goal is to add 5,000 new subscribers.

Karayanis explains that one of the artistic triumphs of recent seasons was a production of Dominick Argento's "The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe," which brought in an entirely new audience, much of it young. "Our market research is showing us we need to be appealing more to that crowd and bringing them into the fold more.

"But that puts another responsibility on us. When we do the `Traviatas' and the `Bohemes' and "Butterflys," we've got to make a statement to which they can relate, given their own cultural experience. [Thus] we are addressing ourselves, in what I think is a very creative and meaningful way, to the rich cultural heritage of the community, one which [includes] a lot of African-Americans and Hispanics.

"Demographically, there are people in each one of those ethnic groups who would participate in the opera if they had peers who were involved that would invite them, and if they were to have a good experience with it."

The company has seen abundant proof of the efficacy of this idea, and several new committees, aimed at specific groups, are already doing work in this area.

For example, Karayanis explains, at the last Opera Ball several corporations agreed to underwrite part of the ticket cost at the suggestion of an African-American member of the executive committee, who noted that $250 a ticket was too expensive for minorities who would be entering unfamiliar territory with no guarantees they would have a good time.

"We had a Rainbow Coalition at the Opera Ball as a result," Karayanis says with some pride. "For Dallas Opera, that was probably the most unusual thing that ever happened. But it was a big success.... This would have never have happened if our new mission did not make a real point of this. And that's enriching the life of the community and embracing its rich cultural heritage."

Dallas Opera has long been a leader in local educational outreach. In fact, last November, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced a contract for a long-term educational partnership between the Dallas Opera and the Dallas Independent School District - one of eight US opera companies the NEA selected to participate in a new educational initiative.

"This is a wonderful boon for us," Karayanis says, "because it finally gives us national recognition for what have been locally recognized as exemplary education programs in the community.... All of these [programs] are done in an in-depth relationship. We provide them with education materials, we team them up with backstage tours, we visit not only with professional performers but also professional staff people, talk about career opportunities in the field.... This just goes back to my philosophy that w hatever we do within the education system has got to ultimately lead people into getting into the hall and having the real live experience....

"We wouldn't be taking these steps if we didn't have the mission initiative. Everybody refers to it, the board, the staff - in everything we do we fall back on the mission and ask: `Are we accomplishing this or are we only accomplishing a part of it? And if we're only accomplishing a part of it, how do we accomplish the other part?' I think that is absolutely key in everything that we do, and it's got to be first and foremost in our thinking. And with that I think we'll even surprise ourselves at the pro gress that we make!"

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