Opera aperta

Inside the Sacramento Opera Company’s art of entertaining

The Sacramento Opera’s Rod Gideons and Jennifer Lin.

The Sacramento Opera’s Rod Gideons and Jennifer Lin.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Opera means work, literally. It’s an appropriate appellative for the art form, as the internal workings of an opera company are the embodiment of the Latin opera—meaning “toil,” “effort” or “trouble.” From designers to dressers, builders to box-office staff, orchestra to outreach coordinator, the work of mounting an operatic production is massive.

Talk with the people who undertake these labors in Sacramento about their dedication to the art form, and another sense of the original Latin takes precedence: opera as “service.” The staff of the Sacramento Opera Company believes the people of the Capital City deserve a regular season of professionally produced operatic productions, and they’re hard at work making that belief a reality.

Like many of the staff members, Sacramento Opera Company Executive Director Rod Gideons came to opera simply because of his love of the form. Gideons studied music in college, but worked in banking before jumping head first into the opera business over 20 years ago.

“It is certainly a situation of vocation versus avocation. Opera is our chosen profession,” he said, referring to the nearly 150 people on the company’s payroll. “We’re not dabblers.”

Indeed, with just over $1.14 million in expenses for the fiscal year of 2005, the Sacramento Opera hardly can afford to dabble. Its regular season currently includes just nine performances—three per production—in the space of six months. That works out to $126,000 per show, or approximately $50,000 per hour of stage time. However, such loose extrapolations oversimplify the organization’s true worth.

“The Sacramento Opera provides a unique arts service for the city,” Gideons maintained, adding that opera is “unlike other arts” in its scope, and in the complexity of the opera-going experience.

This “service” has been available since 1981, when Sacramento’s first independent opera production, Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, took the stage at the Hiram Johnson High School auditorium. Of course, the origins of opera in Sacramento go back a bit further.

Sacramento’s opera history began with the city’s proximity to one of the world’s most prestigious opera companies: the San Francisco Opera. The Sacramento Opera Guild was founded in 1947 by a group of opera-loving, socially prominent women who arranged local concert performances by San Francisco opera singers. Then, beginning in 1951 and continuing for nearly 30 years, whole performances by the San Francisco Opera were staged in Sacramento. The incorporation of the Sacramento Opera Association as a nonprofit organization in 1966 eventually led to 1981’s first independently produced season.

By definition, opera is theater that is primarily sung, as opposed to musicals, which are theater with songs. The fact five times as many Americans attend musicals than operas points to the music as the big audience deterrent. Due to pop-culture interpretations on TV and in cartoons, the American public has a number of preconceived notions about opera, few of them positive: viking helmets, overweight Lotharios and Valkyrie, glass-breaking high notes, mythic pomposity, interminable length. Even critics like the Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott have begun to question how opera can remain relevant in our irony-filled, post-postmodern world.

The perception of opera as “exclusive” persists as one of the most stigmatizing stereotypes surrounding the art form. While the Sacramento Opera folks are undeniably serious about opera, in the end they agree that it’s ultimately about entertainment. The point is for people to attend and to enjoy the experience.

“Box-office revenue accounts for 60 to 70 percent of our budget,” Gideons said. Therefore, the greatest risk for the opera company lies in the uncertainty of audience response. Poor ticket sales have devastating effects, so balance is a key component of the Sacramento Opera’s approach. The tastes of the target audience must be taken into account, but not allowed to fully direct the company’s path toward either stagnant traditionalism or alienating progressiveness.

Based on a 2006 audience survey, 64 percent of the Sacramento Opera’s patrons are 55 or older, slightly higher than in national studies, but that hasn’t translated into overly traditional programming.

Artistic Director Timm Rolek rehearsing with <span style="font-style:normal">Aida</span> cast members Hope Briggs and Drew Slatton.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“We want to break stereotypes,” said Timm Rolek, the Sacramento Opera’s artistic director, whose conducting pedigree includes studies under such luminaries as Sir Neville Marriner and James Levine.

Thus, works in the popular repertoire—guaranteed audience draws like La Bohème or Madama Butterfly—return to the stage every few years to appease traditional tastes. Rarely produced shows are also added, and unconventional stagings of the classics help lessen opera’s stodgy image. As for brand-new works, the Sacramento Opera has produced them, in 1987 and 1993. The directors would like to do more in the future, but the inherent risk demands rock-solid financials.

So, too, would a night of opera “in the park,” which the company is ready to produce. “All we need is a $150,000 sponsor,” Gideons said, “and that’s the sticker. There are no entities in the Sacramento region putting up that kind of sponsorship money for any arts event, much less a one-performance-only opportunity.”

The Sacramento Opera Company has taken an active role in cultivating community interest, offering special performances and informal lectures to provide a deeper understanding of the operatic art. Rolek leads “Opera Talks,” offering back story and historical insights, along with live performances by the production’s stars. Gideons hosts “Opera Interludes” at various Borders locations in the greater Sacramento area. According to Jennifer Lin, the Opera’s director of marketing and audience development, attendance at the last few “Opera Talks” was over 200.

Have these efforts paid off at the box office? The Sacramento Opera’s 2006-2007 season kicked off in September with Mozart’s Così fan tutte. The 18th century tale of Neapolitan soldiers testing the fidelity of their fiancées—two sisters—was craftily re-set in the very stylish fin de siècle, replete with Charles Rennie Mackintosh-esque furniture and drops. Secessionist, art nouveau and symbolist art works were rear-projected onto the upstage scrim, unobtrusively setting the mood of each scene.

Contrary to his assumed popularity, Mozart’s operas have historically sold poorly in Sacramento. Adding to the financial risk of the production was the fact that the run immediately followed the Labor Day weekend. Audiences, having just splurged on vacations and family picnics, traditionally tighten their purses with the official end of summer, but such was not the case this year.

According to an obviously surprised Gideons, the response to Così “far exceeded our expectations.” With a total attendance of 4,277 over three nights, the Sacramento Opera’s production of Mozart’s romantic comedy was an unqualified box-office success.

“Single [ticket] sales for Così were budgeted at $70,000, and the final total was $75,949,” Gideons continued.

Così fan tutte features a number of ensemble pieces, rather than heavily relying on duets and, especially, solo arias, which are best appreciated by audiences well-versed in opera performance. Così invites a broad audience—an opera neophyte can revel in the energy of the ensemble pieces, while the more experienced patron enjoys their complexity.

The remainder of the season includes Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida—which opens tomorrow and runs this Sunday and Tuesday—and Georges Bizet’s Carmen, which will run in February 2007.

Aida is an opera of spectacle. The Sacramento production, despite limited space, features a cast of 63 onstage for the rousing close of the second act. It’s a crowd pleaser, but it’s not without nuance.

Carmen—well, who doesn’t know Carmen? (Really, you think you don’t? How about MTV’s pathetic 2001 “hip-hopera” version starring Beyoncé Knowles, or the famous “Toreador Song”, which has been used in countless commercials and TV shows, including an episode of Gilligan’s Island?) One of the world’s most-performed operas, its universal recognition can’t detract from the gorgeous lyric score. Carmen remains a powerfully moving opera.

With the popularity of these two shows, and the unexpected returns from Così fan tutte, the current season promises to be a very successful one. The Sacramento Opera staff is optimistic, however cautiously, about an upward trend. Gideons is planning on increased activity within the organization, spurred, and in turn sustained, by economic growth in Sacramento. A new Web site is in the works for early 2007, and a fourth show might be added to the regular season next year.

“This is a critical period for our growth,” Gideons said. “Sacramento’s population is growing, and much of it is due to adult relocation from the other metropolitan areas, as opposed to growing families.” Potential audience members, demographically fully formed, are coming to Sacramento, and the Sacramento Opera is ready for them.