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Opera offers free shows for first timers

The tragic story reached its climax. Onstage, the heroine raised her dagger to perform her self-sacrifice. Out in the theater, the audience was hushed.

“Madama Butterfly” cast its spell, as it has over generations of opera lovers. But the people in the Belk Theater weren’t opera lovers – not yet, at least.

Many of them were seeing their first opera. All were seeing their first performance by Opera Carolina. The company put it on Tuesday night just for them – free of charge – to show that “opera is a welcoming and exciting art form,” general director James Meena said.

Charlotte’s cultural groups, like those everywhere, want to pull more people through their doors. The Charlotte Symphony has a concert series aimed at classical-music newcomers. The symphony, opera and N.C. Dance Theatre will join forces in a Tchaikovsky festival in March, hoping to cross-fertilize audiences.

To judge from “Butterfly,” potential newcomers are out there. When Opera Carolina announced in December it would offer a free performance, the requests outstripped the capacity so quickly the company raised money to do another.

The two performances – the second is Saturday – will introduce nearly 4,000 people to Opera Carolina.

“These are folks who have not been on our radar screen,” Meena said. The funding came from the Knight Foundation, as well as the Arts & Science Council and other donors.

Building new audiences

Outreach like this is a growing movement across the United States. The Chicago Symphony created a format it called Beyond the Score: A “live documentary” about a great musical work, including video and comments by the conductor, before a performance. New York City Ballet had dancers introduce performances. Many organizations have launched social groups aimed at young professionals.

For Opera Carolina, the choice of “Butterfly” for its offer was as central to the strategy as the free tickets, Meena said. Thanks to Giacomo Puccini’s passionate music and the heart-tugging story of a geisha’s marriage to a U.S. sailor, “Butterfly” is one of the most popular of all operas. Another angle: Rather than using a traditional set featuring a little white house, Opera Carolina brought in something more dramatic. The set, costumes and video projections were designed by Jun Kaneko, an artist who communicates through colors and patterns.

Put all that together, and “it’s mesmerizing,” Afzal Syed of Charlotte said. He and his wife, Ambrina, were seeing their first opera.

To get ready, the Syeds watched “Butterfly” excerpts on YouTube. Other viewers appreciated the help they got from seeing the opera’s Italian text translated into English on a screen above the stage. But some didn’t want to get too tied to that.

“It’s kind of nice when the words go away and you can just listen,” said Margaret Rudisill of Albemarle. She and her husband, David, were another pair of first-time operagoers.

Kaneko’s designs were what drew in Nikki Mueller, a graphic designer, and her friends Jessica Thomas, Erin Phipps and Sally Wright. After the performance, the group lingered in the Belk Theater lobby discussing other artists – from Russians of a century ago to American painter Roy Lichtenstein – whose creations had power akin to Kaneko’s.

Most of the group had just seen their first opera. Would they try another?

“Absolutely,” they agreed.

That’s what Opera Carolina is shooting for, of course. Now that the company has thousands of new names on its mailing list, it will reach out with incentives to come back, Meena said. It may aim for a fresh batch of first-time viewers with a free opera next year. It hopes to keep whittling at whatever might make people hesitant about opera.

“Price is a barrier. Perception is a barrier. If we can attack that,” Meena said, “we’ve got a fighting chance of building new audiences for what we do.”

That’s what all the groups are working toward.

Joint festival in March

The opera, symphony and NCDT hope their joint Tchaikovsky festival in March will entice people who are familiar with one of the groups to sample the others. It’s starting to work. Thanks to discounts, subscribers to other organizations have begun buying tickets to NCDT’s “Sleeping Beauty,” marketing director Logan McSwain said.

All three groups will share the stage in a Tchaikovsky program on the orchestra’s KnightSounds series. That series, in its third year, is the orchestra’s biggest outreach effort. The concerts are shorter, the conductor chats from the podium about the music and the concerts often include multimedia.

The KnightSounds concerts have generally been sellouts or close to it. And around 30 percent of the people turning up have been new to the orchestra, leaders says.

The orchestra’s latest way of freshening up the audience experience came in November, when it set up seats onstage behind the orchestra. Around 50 people a night took advantage of the fresh perspective – which will be available again during concerts Feb. 3 and 4.

Concertgoers who emailed their reactions about the November experience “loved it,” said Alexandra Zsoldos, the orchestra’s outreach director.

“They said, ‘This is the coolest experience ever,’” Zsoldos says. “‘It’s an awesome way to experience the symphony.’”

Brown: 704-358-6194

Opening their doors

Charlotte performing groups are angling for new people:

Opera Carolina is giving two free performances of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” to people who have never seen one of the company’s productions.

The Charlotte Symphony launched the KnightSounds series, aimed at people who might find traditional concerts too formal. This season, it’s letting people sit onstage behind the orchestra at some of the concerts.

The symphony is exploring projecting players’ and conductors’ close-ups onto screens.

N.C. Dance Theater, the orchestra and opera will collaborate on Tchaikovsky during the Ulysses festival in March, hoping audiences will cross over.

Meeting ‘Madama Butterfly’

People who saw the free performance react.

“Wow. We absolutely loved it. It’s really a timeless story. You could feel the emotion even though you couldn’t understand the language.” Robin Niedermeier, who attended with friend Valerie Johnson

“I really love the fact that they’re trying to make something like opera, which is considered possibly elitist, accessible to everyone.” Marilyn Corn

“This was probably the best (opera) for us to go to because we knew the story line a little bit beforehand. We knew it would be interesting.” Simone McDowell, with fellow first-time operagoer James Davis.

“I think (soprano Yunah Lee, playing Madama Butterfly) does a great job of exuding, so you don’t have to pay attention to subtitles. You can feel the story through her expressions and actions. She helps tell the story.” Jennifer Hull

“I love it, especially the procession (of Butterfly and her friends) that comes down with the umbrellas. I just thought that was fantastic.” Barbara Cullings, first-time operagoer “It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful. I’ve been teaching myself Italian, and so I was trying to pick out different words throughout the opera and actually did OK. I was pleasantly surprised by that.” Mimi McLeod, also a first-timer

Compiled by correspondent Joanne Spataro

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