New opera & honest marketing

New opera & honest marketing

Jenna Simeonov

With the exciting, accelerating trend of new operas being created in North America, there comes an interesting pattern in how they are marketed to the public.

When major opera companies put up traditional works by Rossini, Mozart, or Wagner, it’s a common marketing tactic to mention big names in the cast. “Sondra Radvanovsky is Norma,” or “Joyce Di Donato is the Lady of the Lake,” or “Jonas Kaufmann is Lohengrin,” that sort of thing.

Of course, for the opera savvy, it certainly is a big draw to know that top-notch singers are taking on title roles. With stars like these, it’s no empty PR promise.

Yet it has always seemed funny that companies like the Metropolitan Opera often make their casting one of the primary selling points of the shows on their line-up.

Why is it funny? Because the people who know that they’re likely to get a good show from folks like Radvanovsky, Kaufmann, Di Donato, are already opera fans. They’re much more likely than the average person to buy tickets to a show, and it may or may not be because of the headlining name. It’s fair to say that someone who knows the name “Elizabeth DeShong” also has their own list of favourite operas.

It’s strange, then, that when companies are constantly trying to woo new audiences, and young ones in particular, that they spend so much time name-dropping. Opera isn’t quite like Hollywood, where a movie is likely to gain hype just by saying things like, “Quentin Tarantino,” or “Jennifer Lawrence,” or “Matthew McConaughey.”

Anna Netrebko and Juan Diego Flórez may be household names for fans, but not for the people who might be inclined to try out their first opera experience.

Likely for budget reasons, it’s quite rare that one of these top-tier opera stars performs in a world premiere (with some notable exceptions like Stephanie Blythe in 27, Simon Keenlyside in The Tempest, and David Daniels in Oscar). But even in those cases, it’s exciting to see the tactics that premiere-housing companies take when marketing these new operas. It’s not about the stars, it’s about the story.

Shows like the brand new Breaking the Waves at Opera Philadelpha, or Tapestry Opera’s successful Rocking Horse Winner are great examples; we were wooed by great stories of odd marriages and family secrets, and the high quality of singing is what helped make these successful premieres.

Arizona Opera is gearing up for its first world premiere, Riders of the Purple Sage, where the only notable name-dropping is of Zane Grey, the author of the Western novel on which the opera is based. Successes from Minnesota Opera like Silent Night and The Shining, while the original casts featured fairly well-known names like William Burden and Brian Mulligan, were still marketed story-first.

It brings up a really important question for large opera companies, putting up traditional opera: why did you choose this show for your season?

Is it full of objectively stunning music? Does the story pull you in? Do you want to share the show’s message with your audiences?

Or, have you chosen an opera because it’s a vehicle for a popular opera singer? Do you need a boost in box-office revenue? Do you want to have your company associated with hot names in the business? Are you an Artistic Director who wants an impressive personal résumé of in-demand productions?

That’s what excites us about new operas, and how they’re marketed. Without the long histories of Tristan und Isolde or La traviata, new operas need substance within the pages of the score in order to attract listeners. It’s no longer enough to rely on the internal opera fan club, who get excited when folks like Plácido Domingo move from tenor to baritone roles, or when Peter Sellars gets his hands on a Bach oratorio; the people who care about these things are already putting their bums in seats.

But adaptations of Stephen King novels? Stories about open marriages? Heartwarming moments of WWI history? Yes! We’ll check the cast list after we snag our tickets.

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