Puccini, but without all the frills
Offbeat opera troupe builds audiences; living room shows, rock-bottom prices
By Miriam Kreinin Souccar
One Sunday night last month, nearly 50 people crowded into an Upper East Side apartment that has stunning views of the city and walls covered with important artwork. But they hadn’t assembled to look out the windows or ogle the paintings. They came to enjoy a live performance of Tosca featuring singers who often grace the stages of the country’s finest opera houses. The price of admission? A mere $20. The evening was part of the new B.Y.O.B. series hosted by the Opera Company of Brooklyn. The small arts organization is gaining national attention for cultivating a new generation of opera lovers by offering cheap tickets and performing in unconventional venues.
“Our Angelotti that night, Matthew Burns, had just finished singing that exact part at the New York City Opera,” says Jay Meetze, founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn opera. “With us, people get to hear him in a living room and talk to him afterwards.” The performance is an example of how the company is confronting the demographic changes threatening opera. Executives at even the most renowned houses are desperately searching for ways to cope with graying audiences and declining ticket sales. Last month, the Metropolitan Opera announced halfway through its fiscal year that it would have to make budget cuts, for the third straight year, to compensate for an expected $4.3 million shortfall. And subscription sales are down at City Opera. “The large operas have issues,” says Jasmin Cowin, a professor of opera history at Marymount Manhattan College. “Their big supporters are older, and I don’t know that they’ve really reached out to younger people. The Brooklyn opera has found a way to get people to listen in a nonthreatening environment,” she says, adding that some of the neophytes become patrons at the big houses. Helping to heal an ailing art form is a tall order for the tiny troupe.
Mr. Meetze, a former music teacher, started the Brooklyn company five years ago with $10,000. The organization survives on a shoestring budget of $300,000 a year and a handful of part-time staffers. It functions without its own office or performance space, using churches, museums and now private homes as venues. Nonetheless, the Brooklyn opera is gaining notice as one of the most innovative companies in the country. “It’s fascinating to see how they’ve carved out a niche in targeting the people who don’t pay $180 a seat to go to the Met,” says Ann Baltz, founder and executive director of OperaWorks, a small company in Los Angeles. She says that she may adopt some of the Brooklyn company’s marketing tactics. The first five performances of the B.Y.O.B. series sold out almost immediately. Perhaps even more important, 80% of the tickets went to people who had never been to a Brooklyn opera performance. Many had never even seen an opera. The company will record its first CD this month. Between now and May, it will present 13 different operas at churches and residences, and it plans to hold two free concerts in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza this summer. Low admission prices are central to the company’s efforts. Tickets top out at $50, depending on the venue. But the opera’s nontraditional methods are also controversial. Two years ago, the group came under fire from Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians for using an electronic orchestra.
In the news
The company lost thousands of dollars when Mr. Meetze had to cancel a benefit concert that the union threatened to picket, he says. But the battle put the opera in the headlines. “There is no such thing as bad publicity,” he says. More could be in store: Mr. Meetze plans to use an electronic orchestra for the Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza concerts. Mr. Meetze’s long-term goal is to secure a concert hall, but for now the Brooklyn opera is just trying to make it through each year. Ticket sales contribute only 5% of its budget; the rest comes from individual contributions. The company survives by keeping expenses low. Many singers, some of whom can command fees of more than $4,000 a performance from larger companies, often work for next to nothing. The singers–the company maintains a database with about 500 it can call for auditions–enjoy working with Mr. Meetze. “He always has a great cast,” says soprano Hope Briggs. She sang in the Brooklyn opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro two years ago and is now performing at international houses, including the San Francisco Opera and the Stuttgart Opera in Germany. Audiences are realizing that as well. “This was our first time at the [Brooklyn opera], so my husband and I had no idea what to expect,” said Joyce Flynn after a recent B.Y.O.B. event. “We were pleasantly surprised as to the professionalism and voice quality of the performers. We can’t wait for the new season to begin.”