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Day of the Opera

By Bob Keyes, Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram

Five years ago, Jason Plourde had no patience for opera.

"I didn't understand it, and I didn't want to try to understand it. It was an old style of entertainment, and I was just bored," says Plourde, 23, who has been singing in chorus and school musicals since fifth grade. Today, the Caribou man is among a handful of University of Southern Maine music graduates who are pursuing additional voice training in hopes of carving out careers as opera singers. He and his peers also are among many more young people who not only are giving opera a second thought, but embracing a night at the opera as the centerpiece element of their weekend entertainment plans.

More promising future

For several years, the opera community at large has proudly cited statistics from the National Endowment for the Arts that suggest opera's audience is growing, and growing younger at such a rate that opera presenters are convinced they will enjoy a more promising future than presenters of other traditional arts. During a 10-year-period that ended in the early 1990s, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds attending opera performances in the United States increased by 18 percent. That trend was confirmed in 1997, when an NEA survey showed that 31.6 percent of the U.S. opera audience was younger than 35. A follow-up survey is being conducted this summer.

Those numbers bode well for the Portland Opera Repertory Theatre, which this week presents its version of "Faust" at Merrill Auditorium. The Portland company is 8 years old - relatively young but hardly a newcomer in the field. Since 1970, the number of professional opera companies in the United States has more than tripled, from 35 to 110. Bruce Hangen, artistic director and conductor of the Portland Opera Repertory Theatre, is keenly aware of how that trend is playing in Portland.

"We know we are riding a national trend that shows that younger people are more attracted to opera, and we see that when it comes to our productions," he says. "We see in our audience a younger crowd, young folks as young as high school, who want to make it an evening out, dress up and do the opera thing. That tells us we have a different demographic to work with, and we think about that when we do our marketing materials."

Has a theory about why opera is sizzling

In 1997, 9.2 million adults, or 4.7 percent of the adult population in the United States, attended at least one opera performance, according to the NEA survey. Marc A. Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America Inc., an umbrella organization for opera companies in the United States and Canada, has a theory about why opera is sizzling, particularly among young adults. "It is a multimedia art form in a multimedia world," he says. "Only in the past 10 years has the Internet made us all manage the fusion of linguistic, visual and musical elements. But opera has been doing it for 400 years." Further, Scorca argues, opera can easily be seen as an extension of music videos, which have been popular with young people since the advent of cable television. Music videos combine words, music and images. Opera does the same thing.

"Young people have this facility with multimedia musical-theater expression that, when they are seeking a more serious manifestation of that art form they already know, opera is a natural step for them," he says.

It helps, too, that opera companies routinely use super titles, or some other form of projected language translations, to help the audience follow the drama on stage. Add to that the back-page celebrity of such performers as Luciano Pavarotti, and it makes for a compelling story line on stage and off, observes James T. Morgan, director of marketing and development for PCA Great Performances, which typically plays host to two operas as part of its annual performance series at Merrill. "God bless the Met," he says. "The big rich Met makes news, and things that make news get the attention of young people."

Performed with the Metropolitan Opera

For "Faust," the Portland Opera Repertory Theatre is hosting two singers who have performed with the Metropolitan Opera: Sandra Lopez, 26, and Alfred Walker, 32. Lopez sings the role of Marguerite. Walker plays Mephistopheles, the devil.

Lopez has sung at the Met for two years, in "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Idomeneo." Walker has appeared on the Met stage since 1997 in such productions as "Madama Butterfly," "Rigoletto" and "Samson et Dalila." They came to opera by vastly different roads.

Lopez experienced her first opera at age 9, when her parents took her to see "Tosca." She has been singing since she was 12 and never thought twice about her love affair with the opera. When Lopez was growing up, watching opera on TV or experiencing it live was as natural as playing with a Barbie doll, she says. "I never realized it wasn't what we were supposed to do."

Walker discovered opera much later. He didn't find his voice, in a musical sense, until he was 24. Before that, he had been interested primarily in acting, because, he says, "it allows you to become whoever the character is. You can be as bad or as good or as funny or as crude as the character lets you. It allows you explore the possibilities in a safe way."

That's why he came to Portland for the role of the devil in "Faust." It's a huge part, and the Portland Opera Repertory Theatre has a reputation in the industry for being a place where young singers can tackle challenging roles, he said.

Opera is no longer just people getting up and singing for three hours

For the Portland production of "Faust," stage director Dona D. Vaughn is devising a fast-paced, text-based production that will make it easy to focus on the story as it unfolds on stage. "Who are these people? What are their problems? And how does it all come out? The text tells the story, and the music brings it to life," says Vaughn.

The lyrics will be sung in French, with English super titles. Written by Charles Gounod in 1859, "Faust" tells the tormented tale of Dr. Faust, who sells his soul to the devil in return for his youth.

It's a theme that's as old as opera itself but relevant yet today, says Lopez, noting that super titles and other subtle changes have made it easy for a mass audience to follow. "Opera is no longer just people getting up and singing for three hours. TV has made it real. Suddenly, it's compelling drama. It's music with a great score, and it's live and interesting," she says.

Those elements are what caught Plourde's attention. His first on-stage opera experience came as a chorus member in "La Traviata," presented by the Portland Opera Repertory Theatre in 1998. "They took me in, and I fell in love with it from there. I don't know if it was the larger-than-life aspect of it or the costumes, the set or the music. But I realized you don't have to know what the words meant to enjoy it. It was a totally new experience."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: bkeyes@pressherald.com

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