Duke money helping cultivate young ears

When arts groups have a moment to think beyond merely surviving the recession, their attention may turn to young people. Without the culture lovers of the future, a dead end lies ahead.

The question is: How can you reach out to young people when you're struggling to survive?

For the Charlotte Symphony and Opera Carolina, the answer is coming from the Duke Energy Foundation. The foundation is giving the groups a total of $75,000 to help win over young people to music and opera.

"People aren't going to become arts consumers if they aren't exposed as students," said James Meena, Opera Carolina's general director.

The Duke money will subsidize low-cost student tickets to concerts and operas. It will also:

Help Opera Carolina take a children's opera to elementary schools, filling part of the gap left by budget cuts at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Send Charlotte Symphony musicians into schools to coach band and orchestra players.

Help Opera Carolina teach teenagers about singing, acting and other skills.

The Charlotte Symphony and Opera Carolina already had special prices for young people. When Opera Carolina performed Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" in October, Meena said, it sold about 150 student tickets at $10 each.

But until the Duke foundation came along, there was no sponsor to make up the difference between the student prices and the tickets' regular prices. The groups simply did without the money - a sacrifice for groups that need all the income they can get.

Opera Carolina gave up about $36 of potential revenue on each student ticket, Meena says, if you compare the $10 student price with the overall average price of $46 a ticket.

The Charlotte Symphony took $12 for tickets that could've brought in $60 or more at full price, says Meg Whalen, orchestra director of community engagement. That's because the orchestra hasn't simply been stashing the students in the cheap seats.

"We want them to have a good experience and feel connected to what's happening onstage," Whalen says.

About 20 Davidson College students came to the orchestra's first program of the season, which featured cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Some of the students play string instruments, and "we put them where they could really see," Whalen said. That meant giving up on a few hundred dollars.

The Duke grant will save the groups from sacrifices like that.

"The more young people we get to these concerts," Whalen says, "the happier we are."

In honor of the donation, the students rates will be called the Duke Energy Power of Music Student Discount.

"Appreciation of music enhances higher learning and development," says foundation official Alisa McDonald in a statement. The discount will enable "CMS middle and high school students to gain insight into the power of music firsthand."

Making up for CMS cuts

After CMS slashed its money for bringing arts groups into schools, Meena has said Opera Carolina would try to raise $50,000 to keep its Opera Express program for elementary schools. The Duke grant put that campaign over the top.

So Opera Express, Meena says, will be able to visit up to 40 schools - generally doing two performances at each - with "The Billy Goat's Bluff," an opera geared toward children. Borrowing music from Mozart, it slips an anti-bullying message into a Scandinavian folk tale.

The groups' other programs will let the students go into action making music.

The Duke money will enable the orchestra to keep sending musicians into schools - on top of their duties in the orchestra - to work with band and orchestra players. Money from the N.C. Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Arts & Science Council used to cover the expenses, Whalen says. The state and NEA support ended, but Duke has moved into the gap.

Opera Carolina will continue its Opera Academy, a program for high school students that it launched with a one-week workshop last summer. The students learn about singing, acting and other skills. The company hopes to have about 20 students in the program, Meena says.

Duke has earmarked $50,000 for the Charlotte Symphony and $25,000 for Opera Carolina. Only as the season unfolds, the groups say, will they know how much they'll use for each purpose. That will depend on how many students buy tickets, for instance, and how many schools can fit into Opera Express' window of four to six weeks.

Supplying young people with lessons does more than just improve their musical skills, notes Jonathan Martin, the orchestra's executive director. Across the United States, surveys of audiences have found that most people who attend orchestral concerts say they studied music when they were young.

Performing groups nationwide are launching programs aimed at drawing in newcomers. One of the most recent additions: The Cleveland Orchestra announced in October that a $20 million grant from a Cleveland foundation will help launch a multiyear series of outreach programs. The strategies will include affordable tickets for all age groups and fresh concert formats aimed at people who aren't familiar with classical music.

Broad-based effort

Opera Carolina's Meena thinks back to when he attended Carnegie Mellon University. The Pittsburgh Opera sold student tickets for a pittance.

"I was a starving student, and I could spend $2 and go see an opera," Meena says. "That made a big impression on me."

Meena, obviously, was headed for a career in music. But the Charlotte groups don't necessarily expect the students they reach to follow his path as adults.

"Even if they're just cultured amateurs," Meena says, "that's a win as far as we're concerned."