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FEATURE: Building the Opera Audience of Tomorrow

Opera has a reputation, deserved or undeserved, for exclusivity. To the young audience members in attendance at The Marriage of Figaro last night, exclusivity was definitely on the menu: by the time the performance drew to a close, each of them seemed absolutely convinced that attending was like winning a lottery.

Technically, this performance was the final dress rehearsal for Angels & Demons Entertainment’s new production. This company, headed by Bob Neu and Gabriel Presser, decided to start with a splash, staging Figaro as a site-specific production at the James J. Hill Mansion in St. Paul. Each act unfolds in a different area of the mansion, starting in the actual servants’ quarters and descending, room by room, until the action is outside on the veranda. Servants’ quarters being what they were, there’s room for only 35 people at a time in the audience.

The economics of producing opera with such a small audience are an interesting matter, but for the Twin Cities Opera Guild it was a golden opportunity for introducing people to the genre: opera up close, especially outside a black box theatre, is much more direct an experience than in the cavernous spaces in which it’s often staged. In the intimacy of a boudoir (Act II), the Count’s rage is that much more terrifying, and Cherubino’s antics that much more funny when they unfold just a few feet away. Then there’s the aural-sensual experience of feeling your body resonate at the sound of a voice trained to fill a gigantic hall right in front of you, rather than 50+ feet away. This is how the earliest works we call operas were staged, in the homes of aristocracy, and there’s a lot to be said for this experience.

For its Figaro-related outreach, the Twin Cities Opera Guild set up a process by which would-be participants ages 14-21 applied for free admission to one of the production’s dress rehearsals. A few attendees last night were even younger, having enlisted their parents to lobby for an exemption on their behalf, with the youngest being 9 and quite excited to see her first opera live. Once accepted, the participants were acquainted with The Marriage of Figaro through three short lecture-presentations, introduced to opera as a social experience via a communal dinner, and invited to the James J. Hill Mansion to take in the whole experience.

Prior to last night’s performance, a few audience members had seen recorded operas; some were even devoted fans of recordings that they had listened and watched. None had seen opera live before. After the performance, they chatted eagerly about their favorite parts of the experience, with nary a cell phone flashing. Did it matter that the servants’ quarters had been so cramped? No, they said, it enhanced things. How was the opera being sung in English? It made it really easy to follow the action and the humor, they said. How was the music, rendered with a barebones cast and a piano for reasons of space? The response: divine. Do you want to see another opera? YES!

How’s that for a first toe-dip into opera?

Angels & Demons Entertainment’s production of The Marriage of Figaro opens tonight at the James J. Hill Mansion in St. Paul and plays through July 15. The opera is sold out as of press time; for a place on the waiting list for no-shows and cancellations, call Margaret at the Twin Cities Opera Guild: 651-492-8009.


Basil Considine