January 28, 2015 / 12:28 PM / 3 years ago

Opera strives to strike a chord with U.S. youth

Opera singer Ana Maria Martinez (L) receives a gift from students at Lake View High School in Chicago, Illinois, October 22, 2014.Jim Young

CHICAGO (Reuters) - In a public high school in a working-class neighborhood of Chicago, opera singer Eric Owens recently talked with a music class about stage fright, proper breathing and making words matter.

"It's got to be like it's coming out of your toes," said the bass-baritone, as he coached the occasionally giggly but attentive freshmen through an early 17th-century Italian madrigal. "Like you're saying it for the first time."

Many teens are learning about opera for the first time thanks to one of many national outreach programs aimed at turning kids on to an old art form and injecting an aging, shrinking fan base with new life.

The news for U.S. opera has been gloomy in recent years with big opera companies like the New York City Opera and the Baltimore Opera Company shutting down. Nationally just 2.1 percent of Americans saw an opera in 2012, down from 3.2 percent in 2002, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

The generational news is worse. Among those under the age of 25, just 1.8 percent saw an opera in 2012 compared to 3.3 percent for those aged 65-74.

"There's a concern that if we see a lot of senior citizens, what happens when they pass away and who will fill those seats?" said Cayenne Harris, manager of Chicago's "Lyric Unlimited" outreach program at the city's 61-year-old Lyric Opera.

ARIAS AND ADOLESCENTS

Opera, with its long, melodramatic plots, foreign languages and expensive tickets, has long had an image problem with young people.

Alejandra Boyer, manager at Lyric Unlimited, said the barriers for teens can be "length, the perceived notion that it's going to be boring (and) that only old, stuffy people come to the opera."

Yet with its big, noisy feelings, opera is not a hard sell for many teens, once they are exposed to it, she said.

"The intensity with which you fall in love as a teenager is pretty operatic. These teens are really able to latch on to these stories and make them personal," Boyer said

Opera singer Ana Maria Martinez hugs a student during a visit at Lake View High School in Chicago, Illinois, October 22, 2014.Jim Young

"It's not so far from the world of 'Twilight,'" added Harris, referring to the blockbuster teen vampire movie and book franchise.

The Lyric addresses the cost issue by offering discounts for children and $20 tickets for college students. Sales under the college program are up 11 percent from 2013 to 2014, while attendance for primary and high school groups is up 25 percent over the same period.

Still, Harris said the outreach programs are not only aimed at selling more tickets in the short term.

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"Our end game isn't necessarily a ticket purchase. We want to encourage people to enjoy the art. They may go off to college, have children and then come back in their 40s and 50s - I consider that a success," Harris said.

The Lyric Opera also goes into to Chicago's neighborhoods to perform for grade schoolers. Earlier this month, "The Magic Victrola," a children's opera, played to a nearly sold out crowd at the company's gilded downtown theater.

Other Chicago efforts include the two-year-old Youth Opera Council, which gives high school students a chance to meet stars, go backstage and bring their friends to shows.

Owens, 44, an African-American who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and London's Covent Garden, is one of the Lyric's community ambassadors to Chicago's public high schools.

In class with Owens, who will play Wotan in the upcoming Lyric production of Wagner's "Ring Cycle," students got tips on getting over stage fright and honing your craft, whatever it is.

"You're never perfect at anything," he told them. "You're never not a student. I'm a student right now."

Maya Barber, 15, grew up singing gospel, but thought Owens was "awesome" and is starting to like opera. She also said she was happy to see that an opera star could be African-American, like herself.

"It gives me more confidence that maybe when I grow up, that I can be an opera singer, or any kind of singer I would like to be," said Barber.

Reporting by Mary Wisniewski, editing by Jill Serjeant and G Crosse

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