Sunday, August 10, 2003

Despite economy, opera enjoyed successful year

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Catherine Malfitano starred in Cincinnati Opera's risky but mostly well-received triple bill. Here she rises to the occasion in La Voix Humaine.
Cincinnati Opera continued its tempting mix of brave new works and opera chestnuts in its 2003 Festival, which ended last month. The company's riskiest venture - a "triple bill" starring Catherine Malfitano - was generally well received by Cincinnatians.

But in the end, it was the golden oldie, La Traviata, that saved the day in ticket sales, and helped Cincinnati Opera come in on budget - albeit scaled back - for the 14th consecutive year.

The company sold 88 percent of Music Hall's 3,400 seats, with near sell-outs for Verdi's La Traviata and one evening of Bellini's Norma. Perhaps more importantly at a time when arts groups are struggling to attract audiences, La Traviata brought in more than 2,500 newcomers; Puccini's Turandot enticed about 1,800.

The opera is becoming a destination for the coveted Gen-X and Gen-Ys: One third of the opera audience is under age 45.

Turandot was the first opera experience for Giancarlo Vega, 25, of Clifton.

"It was breathtaking," he says. "The characters, the costumes, the backdrops - it was neat, and the voices were powerful. I wasn't expecting that."

Artistic director Nicholas Muni continues to impress with his knack for casting up-and-coming talent, as well as for his provocative programming. Perhaps for those reasons, the company's two "festival weekends," where one could see two different operas, continued to be a hit this year, attracting 400 out-of-towners from 33 states.

"We have renewed our series subscription and our annual donations for Cincinnati, since their new offerings have been much more interesting," says Joseph N. Hingtgen of Indianapolis, who regularly travels with his wife to Chicago's Lyric Opera and Opera Theatre of St. Louis. "We understand that to be financially viable war horses have to be presented. But we are impressed that the opera company has shown great courage in recently presenting novelties, such as the very moving Dead Man Walking last year."

Critics came, too

The lineup, which included a new ending to Puccini's Turandot by Luciano Berio and the world premiere staging of William Bolcom's Medusa, lured 10 critics writing for 15 publications, from The Columbus Dispatch to Milan's L'Opera.

Still, the after-effects of 9-11 remain a challenge. Total attendance - 28,151 this year - slipped downward from 30,504 in summer 2001. About 62 percent of the house is subscribed, compared to 70 percent two years ago.

But they turned out in droves for Verdi. More than 9,000 - 9,363 to be exact - came to three performances of La Traviata. For the third evening - all single-ticket buyers - audience members were lined up through the lobby and down the street.

Besides the season's four strong leading ladies, there were some impressive singers in secondary roles, such as rising baritone Mark Delavan (Germont in La Traviata), Kristine Jepson (Adalgisa in Norma) and Measha Brueggergosman (Liu in Turandot).

"La Traviata was spectacular. As a longtime opera enthusiast, it was everything that I love about opera," e-mailed Gael Fischer of St. Bernard. "My greatest disappointment was Turandot, an opera I dearly love.... The entire production dragged terribly."

The season got off to a bumpy start with Turandot, and not because of its new, restrained ending by avant-garde composer Berio (although audience opinion leaned toward ditching that ending forever).

On June 21, a faulty fire alarm in Music Hall sent 2,872 patrons into the street at the end of Act I of Turandot. The opera was already 20 minutes late starting because of a medical emergency in the audience. Yet, when the all clear sounded after 10 p.m., most of the audience returned for the remaining two acts, which ended well past midnight. (Those who did not stay were offered refunds or tickets to another performance.)

Turandot's three performances attracted 8,034 attendees.

"Vocally, Turandot was great," says Richard Goetz of Springdale. "However, the set was appalling. The opera is a fairy tale, but the set looked like something thrown together by pipe fitters."

The "stretch" this year was the trio of one-act operas - Poulenc's La Voix Humaine, Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins and Bolcom's Medusa - given their company premieres in a one-woman tour-de-force by soprano Malfitano.

The triple bill drew the lowest attendance - 5,043 for two performances - and audience reviews were mixed.

'Risk' had fewest rewards

"Malfitano's splendid interpretation was not enough to overcome, for me, the tedium of La Voix Humaine," e-mailed Edward Nowacki, a musicology professor at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. "(Seven Deadly Sins) was much more theatrical and entertaining, but by the end of it, I was ready to go home. ... I hunkered down for a challenging contemporary opera, expecting to be served the vegetable course last. Instead I was spellbound from the first note."

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Marilyn Brickner of Bridgetown felt the three operas were repetitious and "just plain boring."

"I can guarantee that at least some of the 2,000-plus audience were on their feet, not cheering, but making a quick exit," she says. "Just don't alienate the old friends while cultivating the new."

Don Baker of Clifton was pleasantly surprised with Medusa - "if only the librettist hadn't been over-exposed to the Broadway rhyme-schemes of Stephen Sondheim," he says.

The season ended with soprano Lauren Flanigan's much-anticipated debut in the title role of Bellini's Norma. Many were glad to see it after a two-decade absence. Treacherous to sing, the bel canto masterpiece somehow fell flat.

"Flanigan's a fine actress, but I was disappointed with her (aria) 'Casta diva,' and some of her high notes came close to being a screech," e-mailed Nell Stemmermann of Indian Hill.

Artistic director Nicholas Muni, who directed the triple bill and Norma, was proud of the audience reaction to the season.

"Even if you didn't like it, that's a positive thing," he says. "Once the community can get to that level, you can really start to do amazing things."

Budget on target

The company's $5.8 million budget is projected to come in on target, although it is pulled back from $6.1 million, a goal projected before the economic downturn. Like all arts organizations, Cincinnati Opera has seen its endowment value drop (it is currently $14 million), along with the income it draws from it for operations.

Board chair Harry Fath believes the budget will stay in the range of $5.8 million for a few years.

"Seven years ago, the budget was $2.6 million," he says. "For the size of our city, we are off the charts."

The company is in the "quiet phase" of a festival campaign, which will boost the endowment, help pay for construction of the new Corbett Opera Center in Music Hall's north wing and support new productions.

Looking ahead, Cincinnati Opera will commission its first opera in its 83-year history. Margaret Garner, by Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour and best-selling author Toni Morrison, is a joint production with Michigan Opera Theatre and Opera Company of Philadelphia. It will premiere in July 2005, timed to honor the planned 2004 opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

"That is a huge step for any company to undertake," Muni says. "We want to see how that goes, and hopefully, there will be more of those."


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