How Detroit's Opera Company Survived, Despite All Odds
Think about Detroit's art scene, what comes to mind? Community art projects, group murals, perhaps a performance art piece or two, strewn amid the rubble of a city that once was. "The national narrative is that it's really full of ruin porn," says Martina Guzman, laughing. "People don't understand how sophisticated it really is."
Guzman, a local radio reporter, has been covering the city's art scene for years. Over the last decade, the city lost a quarter of its population. Many of the city's biggest art institutions, unsurprisingly, also lost major endowments from the Big Three car companies in recent years, grants which once anchored the city's philanthropic institutions.
In 2010, the Detroit Science Center closed. Subsidies to the Charles Wright Museum of African American History and the Detroit Zoo have been drastically reduced. Symphony musicians took a 25 percent pay cut. Art and music programs have been eliminated from public schools. The Detroit Institute of Arts is on the brink of bankruptcy.
But somehow, the city's opera company, Michigan Opera Theatre, has managed to survive, even thrive.
"A third of Detroiters don't even have cars; they can't afford an automobile. There's a high percentages of poverty," Guzman says. "Still, the Opera ball was selling out. it's unbelievable."
The interior of the Detroit Opera House, via the Michigan Opera Company
Much of the credit goes to David DiChiera, the opera company's general director. Instead of catering to opera's natural base - older, wealthy, white listeners from the suburbs - DiChiera has aggressively pursued the city's younger, decidedly less wealthy residents. And he focused particularly on courting minorities.
DiChiera made a point to bring in non-white singers. Kathleen Battle performed here; a couple of years ago, Toni Morrison was brought in to write a libretto.
"We're a city of great diversity," DiChiera says. "When they see their own onstage or in the orchestra pit, that's a very special message. This is not some foreign art form that belongs to another culture."
He's also steadily building a younger audience. He does this via a big annual party, called Bravo, aimed at young professionals. Anyone can throw on a tuxedo or vintage dress and pay $25 for a night of live music at the opera house, all while hobnobbing with the company's stars. Every year, it sells out. Once young people come in once, he says, they come back for regular shows.
"I'm feeling a little more optimism," he says. "There's a real influx of young people who are finding the real estate so modest in price that within the downtown and the midtown you can't even find an apartment or a loft. I'm very excited, because that's the audience of tomorrow."
This isn't to say the company is out of the woods. In April, they launched a last-ditch fundraising effort to bring in $3 million to cover operating costs.
But it's doing much better than many opera companies across the country. Over the last couple of years, Baltimore, Hartford, Orlando and Santa Ana have all shut down their opera companies. Boston's second opera closed its doors in 2011. The New York City opera has cut its season short; ditto the Lyric Opera in Chicago.
According to Fred Plotkin, a blogger for WQXR’s Operavore, more opera companies should adopt a strategy to build an audience that reflects the new demographics of cities. Opera companies, he says, need to do the hard work of educating their communities (particularly young people) about what opera is.
And it helps, he says, to hire "the most attractive performers, ones who are often younger." In an email, he writes:
The point is: audience development for opera is not about demographics. It is about having all people discover that opera is for them if they are living, breathing humans who might not always be in touch with their deepest feelings. In general, only five to ten percent of people seem willing to try opera. Most, though not all, will come to love it if they connect with it.
Top image: Detroit Opera House (Bnosnhoj/Wikimedia Commons)