For Record Companies, Arias Sound Profitable

UNITED States recording companies are trying to create a new market niche: opera for the uninitiated.

The task is to convince music buyers that opera is not as difficult to appreciate as it may sound. And a combination of events makes this a particularly good time for such an effort, industry analysts say.

Classical music recordings accounted for only 4 percent of music purchases last year; rock and popular music made up 44.3 percent, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in Washington. However, there is a potential for a large opera audience, says Sandy Sawotka of Atlantic Records.

Atlantic Records recently released a live-recording CD called ``The Three Tenors in Concert 1994.'' This was the company's first foray into classical music in its 40-year history.

The recording was released shortly after a July concert given by the world's best-known tenors, Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. About 1.3 billion people worldwide saw the concert on TV.

So far, about 440,000 copies of the recording have been sold, a ``very good number'' for classical music, says Angela Corio, director of the RIAA's Gold and Platinum Awards Program.

``We made it very easy for people to buy,'' Ms. Sawotka says. In addition to an advertising blitz, Atlantic Records provided a toll-free number for orders.

Scott Duncan, a music critic for the Orange County Register in Los Angeles, says the Three Tenors concert has helped record companies discover the market potential for opera music.

``Opera is something that translates into '90s culture,'' Mr. Duncan says. ``Our culture is more visual and geared toward star mentality.'' And opera arias have aspects of pop songs, Dunkin says. They are short enough to hold the attention of an audience and they have definitive beginnings and endings.

Many of today's opera stars are cooperating with the music industry's effort to present opera to a wider audience. ``Opera singers want to get out of the opera house and do blockbuster events,'' Duncan says.

A series of 20 opera compact discs and cassettes entitled, ``Pavarotti's Opera Made Easy,'' was released in August by London Records, an opera offshoot of Polygram Classic & Jazz. The series contains famous arias that people may have heard in popular movies. For example, La Mamma Morta by Giordano is heard in the film ``Philadelphia.''

``More people than ever before are exposed to opera, thanks to opera broadcast on TV, the use of opera in films, and the use of opera in TV commercials,'' says Nancy Zannini, a spokeswoman for PolyGram Classics & Jazz.

The series, the company's first extensive opera collection, is endorsed by Italian tenor Pavarotti. It includes highlights of his most-famous operas, as well as contributions from stars such as Kiri Te Kanawa and Joan Sutherland.

Steve Winn, vice president of London Records, says people who have had some exposure to opera music and want to learn more about it are often too intimidated to ask questions at record stores because they think opera is elitist. The series, he says, is aimed at this consumer. `` `Pavorotti's Opera Made Easy' is designed for the newcomer who is just starting his or her opera collection,'' Ms. Zannini says.

Early this year, EMI Classics released a new CD called ``ARIA: A Passion for Opera,'' that also features well-known arias for the uninitiated.

``The record companies find opera and classical music are more profitable than rock and popular music,'' says Burt Flickinger of A. T. Kearney, a management consulting firm in New York. Opera and classical music fans stay faithful to the genre over their lifetimes, Mr. Flickinger says, while rock fans' tastes tend to change every five years.

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