Opera audience gets a new role

The latest example of Los Angeles Opera's effort to bring new audiences to the art form is its 'Jonah and the Whale' production, which included a singalong and free tickets.

Robert Millard/L.A. Opera
‘Jonah and the Whale’

Mix a singalong, some classical performers, and a well-loved Bible tale and if you strike just the right notes, you will get Los Angeles Opera’s latest initiative to shed its formal trappings and recast the art form as a community experience for audiences.

During two days in March, the nation’s youngest, large-scale opera company presented the critically lauded “Jonah and the Whale,” an hour-long première inside the city’s new downtown modern cathedral.

Local children clad in elaborate and colorful silk costumes played sea creatures – fish, squid, and starfish – swirling around Jonah as he fell into the ocean. Pro and amateur musicians from L.A. Opera, The Colburn Music School, the Academy of Music at Hamilton High School, and Celebration Ringers of Pasadena’s Lake Avenue Church made up the orchestra.

From the start, it was clear this would not be your father’s opera. Tickets were free of charge. Children in jeans made up a section of the audience. And, oh yes, the audience participated in a “rehearsal” so all could sing along at key moments.

This deep reach into the local community is the outgrowth of L.A. Opera’s ongoing commitment to bring new audiences to an old art form.

The inspiration behind this latest performance began during the celebration of Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday in 2013. The company produced the British composer’s community masterwork, “Noye’s Fludde,” which calls for the community to perform alongside professionals.

“Having admired and conducted Benjamin Britten’s ‘Noye’s Fludde’ for many years, I felt that there should be more works like it that bring together the entire musical community, combining professional and amateur musicians, choirs, soloists, and – most of all – children,” says James Conlon, L.A. Opera music director, via e-mail. While the scale of “Noye’s Fludde” has never been replicated, he says “Jonah and the Whale” is a first step toward performing works with more audience participation. This kind of community opera, and one that exposes children to classical works, is important to the future of opera, he says.

The ability of the company to take these professionals and meld them with more than 400 people from schools and churches in the area is unique, says Robert Thomas, music critic for the Pasadena Star-News. “This project sets the bar high for other companies but not unreasonably high,” he adds in an e-mail. In an era in which many public schools are cutting back arts education, “these sorts of ventures help to fill that gap,” notes Mr. Thomas.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.