Keeping opera alive in the age of the Internet and hip hop is no easy task, so when Donna Walker-Kuhne seeks to convince black Americans to come to a show, she dares not open conversation with the “O” word.
“If the first thing we say is ‘opera,’ a lot of people are going to just kind of shut down,” arts marketer Walker-Kuhne, who has been cultivating black audiences for the New York City Opera since May, said in an interview.
Next week, New York’s City Opera puts on “Margaret Garner,” which centers on the real 1856 story of an escaped Kentucky slave that inspired Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved.” When marshals surrounded the cabin Garner had escaped to, she killed her two-year-old daughter and attempted to kill herself rather than return to slavery.
Walker-Kuhne, who is African American, says blacks historically aren’t big opera patrons for a simple reason: “They haven’t been invited. You have to be invited to places, you don’t just barge in.”
Opera must evolve as its potential audience is no longer the almost exclusively white upper-middle class elite crowd it was 50 years ago, he said.
While opera has centered on diverse themes since its start in Italy during the 1600s, it needs to embrace the stories of new faces he sees in the audience, he said.
A powerful story about slavery can communicate to a black audience “that opera is not about some foreign world across an ocean, but it is a contemporary cultural expression through which we can tell the American story,” said Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a nonprofit organization.
The strategy has worked. When the Cincinnati Opera ran a production of “Margaret Garner” in 2005 all three nights were sold out—the company’s first sold-out performances in decades.
In the spring the Los Angeles Opera, where pieces normally run for seven or eight nights, featured 12 nights of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” an opera about black life in South Carolina in the 1930s. It marketed the show heavily in the black media. “It was the perfect opportunity to bring new audiences into the opera house,” said spokesman Gary Murphy.
The Los Angeles Opera also ran its first zarzuela, an opera form that began in Spain and spread to Mexico and Cuba. For both runs, it offered one night when all seats were only $20.
Next year the Cincinnati Opera will offer “Florencia en el Amazonas,” by Mexican composer Daniel Catan. The piece was inspired by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera.” It will be the opera house’s first opera in Spanish.
“For any art form to be healthy, for any industry to be healthy, it needs new product,” said Scorca. “Opera needs new product too,” he said.