D.C. opera hopes youths watch these sopranos

Karoun Demirjian
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

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."

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still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

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8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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