Last season the folks at the Virginia Opera decided to do something small but novel: They moved opening-night performances in Norfolk, their headquarters, from Friday night to Saturday night. Ticket sales spiked dramatically.
Big deal, right? Well actually, yes. After checking in with fans, the opera — long saddled with the perception that its patrons are old and stuffy — learned that Saturday nights are much more palatable to the schedules of people with jobs and babysitters; they'd prefer, rather than rushing home to change after work, to make a night of it with dinner, the opera and post-show entertainment.
That says a lot about who's going to the opera these days.
“There's a misconception that the opera is all senior citizens,” says Danielle Canonico, director of communications for Virginia Opera. “In reality, our patrons have work, maybe kids. … It shows that the opera is for everybody.”
The change also shows the opera is a living, mutating thing unafraid to adapt to the times. Moreover, its innovative adaptations and programs — events for young professionals, for example, or bringing in kids from schools to performances — cast opera as not some exclusive, Elizabethan pastime but as entertainment no more out of reach than, say, a Broadway show.
Virginia Opera continues extending olive branches this year with out-of-theater events, such as “Opera and Roses” at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (Oct. 3), where performers do selected works amongst the lush environs.
“Most of our events are inside,” Canonico says. “But this is blending what everybody likes: a beautiful venue, wine tasting and the music. People love the singers. … We hear a lot that people don't realize how much they know the music. You know it from movies and commercials and shows, and that's what makes people stop and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I know that!' They connect with it emotionally.”
Of course Virginia Opera — consistently recognized as one of the best regional opera companies in the country for set design and lighting — isn't straying from its core product: the actual performances.
The Richmond leg of the season kicks off Oct. 22 at CenterStage with “Rigoletto,” a tale so dark and macabre (there's a hunchbacked jester, sex parties and attempted murder) that while it was still being written in 1850, rumors circulated it would be banned before it was even performed. South African-born Fikile Mvinjelwa, who's performed for Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and played a number of leading roles, makes his Virginia Opera debut in the title part.
Following CenterStage performances of “Cosi Fan Tutte” (Nov. 26 and 28), another season standout will be “The Valkyrie” (Feb. 25 and 27), which — again, with its modern consumer in mind — the opera has shortened to three hours. They know that in this era of crunched time and fleeting pop culture, people want to high art — but in a digestible dose.
“You want to meet people where they are,” says vocalist Carlos Clanton, who at 30 is one of the youngest performers in the opera. “It's not an elitist thing — it's about seeing something you'd not normally see. It's ‘I want to do something on different level,' to do something to impress yourself — this is an opportunity to do that.”
Canonico agrees: “You're seeing younger people going all out, getting dressed up. They want to be respected, to have a beautiful night out. We found that when people see it's just a few hours, and they give it a try, they love it.”
See information on the Virginia Opera's 2010-'11 season at vaopera.org.