As the lights flicker on and off and operagoers shuffle back to their seats, an elegantly dressed young couple pauses for a moment on a marble staircase. The intermission of "The Shepherd King," a Boston Lyric Opera production, is almost over, but Aaron Zimmerman and Amelia Dunlap don't hold back when asked to share their thoughts about the evening's entertainment.
"Opera is a lot of fun. I'm surprised that I like it so much," says Mr. Zimmerman, who is decked out in a tuxedo for his first evening at the opera. "I'm amazed that it's such an old art form, yet people are still coming to it even though it was written over 200 years ago."
"I like the music, the costumes, and the whole atmosphere of the theater and the people that still go to it," says Ms. Dunlap. "It seems that movies and pop culture have totally replaced the artistry."
Slowly shedding its image as a stuffy art form, opera is almost becoming hip among many young adults like Zimmerman and Dunlap.
And the numbers reflect this image change. The most recent opera study by the National Endowment for the Arts determined that the number of 18-to-24-year-olds attending performances increased by 18 percent between 1982 and 1992. This represents a greater increase than musical theater, classical music, jazz, plays, or ballet.
That doesn't surprise Marc Scorca, president of OPERA America. "If you enjoy watching music videos, those happen 27 inches across; opera happens 27 feet across," he says. "The emotions are big, and there's nothing like the solo voice ringing through the theater. It has an impact on the listener that you can't find anywhere else."
Patrick Smith, editor of the trade publication "Opera News," says opera is the only performing art that has gained an audience in the '90s. "Opera is an art form that is close to rock concerts," Mr. Smith says. "I'm not saying a majority of the people that go to rock concerts will attend the opera, but we will get a minority."
Opera companies across the country, encouraged by the appearance of more twenty-somethings, are wooing this age group aggressively through creative advertising, singles programs, and even parties.
Baltimore's Opera Company, for instance, has several programs geared for young audiences. "We're doing a lot with the tone of our advertisements," says Deborah Goetz, director of marketing. "We are trying to be more funny and entertaining."
Ms. Goetz says her opera company is involved with a progressive-rock radio station in Baltimore that asks listeners to call in and sing an opera chosen by the DJ. The best singer wins opera tickets.
The L.A. Opera Company last year started a club called Opera Noveau. Members receive a card and a newsletter, and are invited to a post-performance party where audience members can meet the cast. So far, so good. There are 100 tickets available per production, and they sell out fast.
Opera itself is undergoing a kind of make-over to become more accessible. Nowadays, opera singers must have the "entire package," says John Moriarty, artistic director of Central City Opera in Colorado and director of Opera Theater and Studio at the New England Conservatory.
A beautiful voice just doesn't cut it anymore. "We used to typecast just according to voice, but now we look for singers who can sing, move, act; if necessary, who can dance and function in four languages," he says.
Portland Opera's Jim Fullan agrees. "Younger audiences have been reared on television and film to a greater extent than previous generations of opera patrons. Singers must be able to act, and compel an audience to believe in what is taking place onstage."
Even the sets have changed - often becoming more lavish and more cinema-like. English subtitles have helped make opera more user-friendly. And operas that revolve around contemporary issues are also helping to attract new audiences - such as "Harvey Milk," which deals with homosexuality, and the hugely popular "Rent," which is inspired by Puccini's "La Boheme" but set to a rock-and-roll score.
Still, opera companies are aware that a season of all-contemporary works may turn off traditionalists. "What may appeal to a younger audience might insult your core audience, so you have to do a real balancing act," says Jo Ann LaBrecque- French, director of communications at the Houston Grand Opera.
Her company is starting a program for younger audiences called the "Discovery Series." It features three popular operas: "Tosca," "Faust," and "The Magic Flute." Tickets are half price, and operas are only staged on Saturday nights.
"We have found that in order to hook young people, we need to showcase popular operas," Ms. LaBrecque-French says. "We are hoping that the people who come in and fall in love with a 'Carmen' or a 'Madame Butterfly' will buy another ticket and come back for more."
Cost is an issue for young people, LaBrecque-French adds. On top of that, she says, "They are working harder and longer, so they can't get out on a Thursday night."
Even if you can't make it to the opera, listening to arias in your car or home can be just as entertaining. Just ask Ashley Nicholson, who also attended the Boston Lyric Opera's production of "The Shepherd King." She says she fell in love with opera a few years ago during a production of "Madame Butterfly," performed at her college.
"I love going to the opera, but I enjoy listening to it at home as well," she says. "I'll pop in a disc when I want to relax. Opera changes the whole atmosphere. It can even make cleaning the house seem exciting!"
Surprise! Opera Is an Accessible Art
The 10 Most Frequently Performed Operas, in Order:
The Marriage of Figaro
The Barber of Seville
The Magic Flute
Lucia di Lammermoor
Movies With Opera Excerpts:
Amadeus - The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)
Apocalypse Now - Die Walkre (Wagner)
Babette's Feast - Don Giovanni (Mozart)
Breaking Away - Martha (Flotow)
Fatal Attraction - Madame Butterfly (Puccini)
The Godfather Part III - Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni)
Hannah and Her Sisters - Manon Lescaut (Puccini)
Moonstruck - La Bohme (Puccini)
Philadelphia - Andrea Chnier (Giordano)
Pretty Woman - La Traviata (Verdi)
Prizzi's Honor - L'Elisir d'Amore (Donizetti)
A Room With a View - Gianni Schicchi and La Rondine (Puccini)
The Untouchables - Pagliacci (Leoncavallo)
Wall Street - Rigoletto (Verdi)
TV Commercials Using Opera:
Bertolli Olive Oil
Nike Athletic Shoes
Nina Rici Perfume
Oil of Olay
Visa Credit Card
Source: OPERA America
To learn more about opera, visit these on-line sites:
* Opera of America, a Web page dedicated to opera by American composers. Offers a time line of American contributions to opera, information about American operas, and suggested arias for singers interested in American opera. It also features links to composers such as John Adams and Philip Glass.
* The Opera Page, a simple yet elegant page that explains the elements of opera (the libretto, arias, etc.), lists terms used in opera and composers, and includes synopses of popular operas.
* Operabase Index, a database of 300 opera houses and festivals, news and reviews from papers around the world, performance schedules, and monthly highlights.
*OperaGlass provides detailed information, including performance histories, synopses, librettos, discographies, pictures, and more on a small but rapidly growing number of operas, plus pointers to many other opera servers.