Magazine article The American (Washington, DC)

America's Opera Boom: The U.S. Now Has 125 Opera Companies. That's More Than Germany or Italy, and Roughly as Many Americans Attend Live Opera Performances as Attend NFL Football Games. Jonathan Leaf Examines a Surprising Phenomenon-Beyond the Met

Magazine article The American (Washington, DC)

America's Opera Boom: The U.S. Now Has 125 Opera Companies. That's More Than Germany or Italy, and Roughly as Many Americans Attend Live Opera Performances as Attend NFL Football Games. Jonathan Leaf Examines a Surprising Phenomenon-Beyond the Met

Article excerpt

SHOULD YOU HAVE stepped inside the Ordway Center, a grand temple of culture in downtown St. Paul, on a damp night in April that even Minnesotans found bone-chilling, you would have seen crowds of people in brightly colored[ evening gowns and demure business suits standing in unison, loudly hailing Korean soprano Youngok Shin.

One of the world's most respected classical singers, she had just concluded a dazzling performance in the title role of Lakme, an opera by Leo Delibes--fairly obscure except for a famous aria and a duet--set in West Bengal.

Around Shin on the stage were dozens of choristers in either saffron and tangerine saris or khaki and mustard British army uniforms. Coming to join them was the conductor Michael Guttler in his charcoal tuxedo. Behind the phalanx of figures curtsying and bowing was the bamboo front of a temple pagoda--where Lakme had chosen to give her life to save her lover.

The Ordway Center holds 1,780 and, although the tickets ran to over $100 apiece, the house was nearly sold out. In the pit, playing behind Guttler, was an enlarged version of the widely admired St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and, if only dimly, its musicians could be seen rising and standing at the behest of the maestro and the crowd.

Lakme is one of five operas that the Minnesota Opera will present this year, and the success of the production illustrates one of the most unexpected developments in American life today: the burgeoning popularity of live opera. Even as symphony attendance declines and movie-theater admissions stagnate, opera-going has blossomed. The U.S., believe it or not, is one of the global leaders.

The U.S. now has 125 professional opera companies, 60 percent of them launched since 1970, according to the trade group OPERA America. The U.S. has more opera companies than Germany and nearly twice as many as Italy. In the most comprehensive recent study, the National Endowment for the Arts found that between 1982 and 2002, total attendance at live opera performances grew 46 percent.

Annual admissions are now estimated at 20 million, roughly the same attendance as NFL football games (22 million, including playoffs, in 2006-07). In part, this reflects a shift toward seeing opera domestically. "Foreign opera destinations like Salzburg and Glyndebourne are more expensive, and more Americans are staying home--and probably feeling safer for it," says Richard Gaddes, general director of the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico.

Consequently, opera travel within the U.S.--even by foreigners--is booming. The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis drew attendees last year from 42 U.S. states, in addition to France, Germany, Britain, and Canada. Likewise, the Seattle Opera gets loads of Germans eager to see its highly regarded productions of Wagner's operas. Gaddes says his company is "the major economic engine of tourism in Santa Fe."

And the number of American opera productions continues to increase. As of 2005, OPERA America included companies under its aegis in 44 states. They put on 3,012 performances (up by one-third in just four years) of 420 different opera productions. Opera companies, moreover, are raising large amounts of money: $387 million in private contributions in 2005 alone.

The aficionados on this cold spring night at the Ordway Center are overwhelmingly local, living within a few hours' drive, and they applaud with an engaged but controlled heartiness in the Scandinavian style. There are no garlands tossed on the stage, nor calls from the rafters of "Brava!" Yet the midwestern crowd plainly knows that it has seen something special--that Youngok Shin, who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera as Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni and the title role in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, among others, has shimmered in one of the most vocally and dramatically difficult roles in the coloratura repertoire.

It's hard to say how many in the crowd have seen Lakme before. …

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