Sunday, August 8, 2004

Opera filled seats with 'Carmen'

Performances drew record crowd despite drop in subscriptions

By Janelle Gelfand
Enquirer staff writer

Cincinnati Opera set a record for attendance of an opera this season, although its subscriber base and average attendance are slipping.

The company expanded to 11 performances this year, including four of Bizet's Carmen. It was a wise move to bet on the world's most popular opera, which brought nearly 12,000 people (11,907 to be exact) to Music Hall, including 3,500 first-time opera-goers.

"We're thrilled with that. We exceeded our estimate," says Patricia Beggs, the company's managing director.

For the 15th consecutive year, the opera expects to post a small operating surplus, on a $5.7 million budget.

That's the good news. But the season lineup was a tough sell. It matched opera chestnuts Don Giovanni and Carmen with the lesser-known Daughter of the Regiment, not heard in Cincinnati in 31 years, and the premieres of The Emperor of Atlantis and The Maids, an edgy double bill.

A snapshot of the result:

• Total attendance for 11 evenings - 28,497 - was up slightly from last year's 28,151, which had fewer (10) performances. That's a slip from 2001, when 30,504 fans flocked to 10 evenings.

• Subscriptions also fell; the house was 54 percent subscribed, compared with a high of 73 percent in 2000 and 63 percent last year.

• And in a 3,400-seat hall, the company sold 81 percent of capacity, a number that is inching downward. (It was 88 percent last year, and more than 95 percent in 2001.)

The season began with a charming production of Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment, attracting 4,775 to two performances.

Three evenings of Mozart's Don Giovanni, which introduced New Zealand baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the murderous rake, brought 7,292 people.

The Double Bill, the season's most controversial weekend, was predictably the lowest attended, at 4,523.

To artistic director Nicholas Muni's credit, it was a smart move to plan a "festival weekend" surrounding the premieres, so that opera-goers could learn more.

Lectures, films, performances at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and a reading of The Maids at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati proved to be popular attractions. Those extra events, as well as an art exhibit opening by Carmen (and Harry Potter) illustrator Mary GrandPre at Closson's, attracted about 1,600 people.

The company's two "festival weekends" - one surrounding the Double Bill, and another with back-to-back performances of Don Giovanni and Carmen - helped to attract opera fans from 36 states.

The company continues to inspire with its "Community Dress Rehearsal." Now in its 14th summer, the event brought nearly 3,000 residents from Over-the-Rhine and surrounding neighborhoods to a free dress rehearsal of Carmen.

There's also good news on the fund-raising front. On opening night, Cincinnati Opera announced a $12 million Festival Campaign, with $7.6 million raised so far. Alongside that, its annual fund-raising has raised almost $2.5 million - up $70,000 over last year. The mix, which includes grants and corporate sponsors, included nearly $1.4 million from individual donors.

Next year, the company will scale back to 10 performances, and offer better-known fare.

The audience, says Beggs, "told us they loved the 'stretch' piece, but want the other 75 percent to be traditional."

At the end of this month, opera board and staff members will travel to Detroit, for a reading of the opera Margaret Garner.

Based on the true, tragic story of a Kentucky slave, the newly composed opera is a joint commission with Michigan Opera Theatre and Opera Company of Philadelphia by Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour and best-selling author Toni Morrison. It will premiere in Cincinnati next July.



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