Opera Flourishing: Attendance Rise Spurs Spending

Article excerpt

The Washington Opera gambled $18 million last week when it defiantly purchased the downtown Woodward & Lothrop flagship store, despite city zoning rules requiring that half the space be used for shops and restaurants.

But opera executives hope to cash in on a surge of popularity in an ancient art form that traditionally has attracted intensely loyal audiences.

Opera audiences have jumped by about 30 percent in the past 10 years, with the biggest gain coming from the 18-to-24 age group, according to Opera America Inc., the Washington-based trade group for opera companies.

"When I look out in the audience now, I see people in their 20s and 30s dressed in leather and wearing rings in all parts of their bodies," said Kevin Smith, president of the Minnesota Opera in St. Paul, which just spent $3 million renovating warehouses to use for rehearsal halls and dress shops.

The boom in interest has spurred construction: the San Francisco Opera is spending $84.5 million on a total renovation that will be finished in 1997. And locally, the Virginia Opera in Norfolk two years ago raised $10 million to rebuild its Harrison Opera House.

"Renaissance is definitely the right word. When I travel around the country, I'm struck by how opera has become the thing to do," said Opera America spokeswoman Laura Young.

While choice seats can cost as much as $175, most companies offer lower-priced tickets for around $20 so it can meet the budgets of the younger crowds opera is now attracting, she said.

And to help audiences understand the performances, most opera companies now use surtitles to project the opera's English translation in large type above the stage. Elaborate sets and dramatic lighting can also make the opera more appealing to audiences, which have become accustomed to spectacular special effects in their entertainment.

"We've become a visual culture with MTV and television in general - the opera is not quite as abstract as attending a symphony concert," said Suzanne Stephens, public relations director with the Washington Opera.

Opera is turning up in commercials for everything from athletic footwear to electronics, while movies such as "Philadelphia" and "Shawshank Redemption" use the music to backdrop dramatic scenes. …