WASHINGTON - Check out a college student’s iPod, and odds are tracks of gangsta rap will outnumber grand opera. But can Snoop Dogg devotees be persuaded to appreciate Puccini?
The Washington National Opera is betting that with a few free performances, they can.
On Sept. 23, the Washington National Opera will air live, high-definition simulcasts of Giacomo Puccini’s beloved opera “La Boheme” in the original Italian with subtitles to a variety of indoor venues in at least 17 universities and two high schools nationwide.
The venture, estimated to cost the company $500,000, will bring free opera to students at schools from Princeton to the University of Arkansas to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, although none in Illinois.
Washington National Opera general director Placido Domingo says it’s a price worth paying to build future audiences.
“With `La Boheme,’ better known as `Rent’ for many people ... we are bringing a production that’s going to be very exciting,” Domingo said, referring to the Tony-award-winning Broadway musical and blockbuster film based on Puccini’s opera libretto.
Organizers hope the production, directed by Mariusz Trelinski and featuring young opera stars in modern dress, will appeal to younger audiences who might otherwise be turned off by the antiquated ceremony of period pieces.
“It’s going to be something very living,” Domingo said. “I think this is one of the most fantastic things happening to our company, and to opera in general.”
With this initiative, the Washington National Opera becomes only the second company to simulcast live opera at the national level.
The Metropolitan Opera of New York took the inaugural steps into national simulcasts last December, with an abridged, English-language production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” that aired live in about 100 movie theaters across the U.S. and Europe.
Over the course of the season, the Met simulcast six live operas, and with tickets costing $18, brought in sellout audiences that ranked in the national movie box office top 20 lists. Opera house ticket sales rose too, by 7.1 percent at the box office and 10 percent for subscriptions - major gains for an art form that for years has been attracting a mostly aging audience.
The project was so successful that Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb said the Met is expanding the venture next year to eight operas in 800 movie theaters internationally.
“It’s not dissimilar to sports broadcasts,” Gelb said. “The Mets, the Yankees, the Knicks - all their games are available through electronic media, and it’s been proven that having a broader electronic bond with your audiences only enhances interest in actually being at the mecca of it all, which in our case is the opera house. It’s raised the profile of opera. It’s now considered hip to go to the Met.”
In targeting young people, the Washington National Opera is aiming to market opera as not only cool but also as an educational tool. This comes as music education is threatened by cutbacks.
“We’re asking university partners to integrate these operas into their curricula,” said Steve Blair, marketing director for the Washington National Opera. He said the company will be providing extra materials for students to enhance their understanding of “La Boheme.” “As a cultural arts event,” he said, “it can transcend to departments of history, literature, language. ... It has a broader reach than just sending an opera into a theater.”
Community outreach, including local broadcasts of opera, is a fairly common practice among large companies. Several, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago, host audience building programs, offer youth incentives and broadcast opera on local radio stations.
Outdoor simulcasts of performances have also become a popular means of bringing opera to new audiences, with such companies as the San Francisco Opera, the Houston Grand Opera and the Met using high-definition Jumbotron screens to bring a classic art form to people who might otherwise never set foot in an opera house.
The Washington National Opera began this practice three years ago, broadcasting “Porgy & Bess” to an audience of 13,000 on the National Mall, which will also host the broadcast of “La Boheme” on Sept. 23.
Directors at the Washington National Opera and the Met hope that the practice of national simulcasting will eventually catch on with other large opera companies.
Competition is not a concern, according to the impresarios. The primary objective is to expose as many people to opera as possible, because no matter who undertakes such programs, the benefits are shared by the industry - and audiences - as a whole.
“Everybody’s trying this new, revolutionary way to bring opera to everybody,” Domingo said. “There is nothing like a live performance, but simulcast is close. One day, every performance, wherever you are, is going to be broadcast.”