Amid increased audience interest, companies grow more ambitious as The Smith Center remains wary


Illustration by Chris B. Murray

Culture creatures, kindly rummage through your memory. When last you thrilled to opera, you were:

1) Dressed in a tux or gown in a packed concert hall, listening to a highly trained mezzo-soprano interpret Die Fledermaus.

2) Dressed in your pajamas in front of the TV, listening to Elmer Fudd warble “Kill da waaaabit.”

Most folks—in this city, this state and this country—would check the latter. Circumstances suggest that might change with the splashy debut of The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, yet while touring theater companies and homegrown dance and classical music anchor its schedule, opera is MIA. Whether it can elbow its way into our new arts mecca depends on whom you ask.

Claims Eileen Hayes, founder/general director of Nevada Opera Theatre: “We are in preliminary discussions with The Smith Center right now to do something in their smaller venue.” Claims Ginger Land-van Buuren, business director of Sin City Opera: “We are in discussions with The Smith Center. Fingers crossed.” Actually, “discussions” is pushing it. So would calling them informal or even casual. “In passing” is more likely. “It could be they ran into a board member or a donor in an elevator somewhere,” says Myron Martin, president of The Smith Center. “Maybe they said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could have opera at The Smith Center?’ and the donor said, ‘Yeah, why don’t you look into that?’”

Yet Las Vegas audiences show up in enough numbers to at least justify continued opera efforts elsewhere around town. Following a production of Tosca last year featuring Metropolitan Opera singers that nearly sold out the 524 seats at the College of Southern Nevada’s Nicholas J. Horn Theatre, 13-year-old Opera Las Vegas has cranked it up. Don Giovanni, its next opus, will be staged at UNLV’s Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall with its 1,832 seats on June 15 and 17.

“The first Met singers who sang in [Tosca] had to be cajoled into coming to Las Vegas to perform—it was more like we had to twist arms,” says Opera Las Vegas President Caroline Orzes. “This time around we had to turn singers away. Word got back to the Met that Las Vegas audiences are not shy about showing their appreciation.”

Upgrading as well was UNLV’s student opera company. After staging its Divas program six months ago in the small Doc Rando Recital Hall, the company also relocated to Ham Hall in March, performing Carmen for a bigger, wider audience.

“The student audience is not my main concern,” says Linda Lister, who has demonstrated admirable creativity as she wraps up her first year as the company’s director. Contemporizing Mozart’s The Impresario during the Divas program, she re-imagined the characters as Madonna, Lady Gaga and Steve Wynn. “I’d love for students to attend, but I’m definitely looking to reach the community.”

More modestly, Sin City Opera, which just celebrated its first anniversary, has settled into an odd venue for the grandiosity of opera—the gritty 98-seat Onyx Theater—and follows up last November’s Ba-Ta-Clan by Jacques Offenbach with Emmanuel Chabrier’s An Incomplete Education on June 14-16. Meanwhile, granddaddy local company Nevada Opera Theatre, founded in 1985, continues targeting specialty groups—it took Hansel and Gretel and an excerpt of Die Fledermaus to schoolchildren and community groups recently—as well as the public at large. (Aida, its next major production, is scheduled for Ham Hall in early 2013.)

However, The Smith Center remains opera-free. Reasons? “The Smith Center one day will likely have some kind of an opera presence, and we’re prepared for it, but it has to be quality. Doing opera for opera’s sake doesn’t interest me,” Martin says. “Opera is going to take awhile to develop in this community. Maybe these places we have around town are the perfect place and maybe it’s OK for The Smith Center to be the aspirational venue, that we hold out for quality and make sure the fulfillment factor is always high. Having an opportunity to present really fine, well-staged, well-sung opera would mean something.”

Importing professional, out-of-town opera companies, just as The Smith Center does with touring Broadway musicals, is seemingly possible. Yet the make-or-break factor would be the return on the investment, likely to be much less lucrative, given the high cost of producing a full-scale opera and the limited audience potential.

Opera Las Vegas’ Don Giovanni is impressive on several levels. As a nonprofit outfit that relies on some government support, as well as donations, they’re shelling out about $150,000 for this production. Costs include not only elaborate sets and costumes, but also hiring several Metropolitan Opera singers (Opera Las Vegas’ artistic director, Gregory Buchalter, is an assistant conductor with the Met), as well as dancers, a choreographer and up to 45 musicians. After incurring those expenses, Orzes says, “if we sell 65 percent of Ham Hall’s capacity, and we really expect to do so, we will be very, very happy. Reynolds Hall [at The Smith Center] seats more than 2,000 and I think that’s [too] ambitious for us now.”

International opera expert Fred Plotkin—who has worked at more than 40 opera companies including the Met and La Scala and authored Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera—points out other financial factors.

“When an opera company mounts a production, it needs a rehearsal period that includes a lot of time on the stage, while ballet companies and symphony orchestras can do more rehearsing elsewhere,” Plotkin says. “If a company is rehearsing Don Giovanni on the stage of a multi-use theater, there might not be sufficient space or time to also rehearse and present other kinds of performances in the evening. When theaters are dark in the evening, they lose money and audience attention.”

Much more modestly, the scrappy but shoestring-budgeted Sin City Opera stages their productions for $1,000 or less, scraping together nominal pay for their singers and musicians—sometimes two pianos, sometimes a couple of string players added in—with skeleton sets on the little stage of the Onyx. Comparatively, The Smith Center’s smallest venue, the Troesch Studio Theater, looks like the Met.

At Onyx—known for often avant-garde and flat-out off-the-wall theater, including shows with nudity—Sin City Opera found an accidental audience. “The Onyx has been really wonderful to us,” company president Skip Galla says. “Some of the people were there to see a straight play and they just stayed because they were already there. They told us they were surprised they liked it.”

Underlining opera’s struggle to lure patrons is a blunt statistic: Plotkin has estimated that around 5 percent of the population in most American communities attend opera performances, skewing higher with more educated audiences. “On the West Coast, I’d have to agree,” says Hayes of Nevada Opera Theatre. “I hate to say this, but people are not as well-educated. You have much more educated, sophisticated individuals on the East Coast than you do here.”

Until opera meets the financial and creative criteria that would earn entry into The Smith Center, Vegas devotees can supplement around-town productions with the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD presentations in movie theaters.

Don’t expect “Kill da Waaaabit.”

Opera Etiquette

Beyond the obvious rules—don’t munch popcorn or put your feet up on the seat in front of you—here are tips for attending opera, suggested by American opera tenor Bryce Westervelt on his website:

Research the opera beforehand. “Take 10 minutes to review the basic plot information … or hear an opera CD of the piece so you are familiar with what you are about to see.”

Don’t feel you must don a tux or a gown. “There is no set dress code. You will find people dressed in anything from business casual to Sunday best. … Ripped jeans and a T-shirt will not get you kicked out … but you might consider cleaning up a bit.”

Attend to a basic necessity—i.e., a visit to the bathroom—before the program begins. “Opera acts tend to run pretty long.”

You’ll certainly be told by an announcer to shut off cellphones and refrain from recording the performance. One other thing: “It is inappropriate to hum or tap along.”

You know to resist hooting and whistling in appreciation. But when should you clap? “When the conductor comes out to start the overture. … At the end of an act or the end of the opera and the opera singers are taking bows.” Then there’s the foolproof hint: “When everyone else around you is clapping.”

Preferred shouts of approval? “‘Bravo’ for a single male performer. ‘Brava’ for a single female performer. ‘Bravi’ (pronounced ‘brah-vee’) for a group of male performers or a mix of male and female singers. ‘Brave’ (pronounced ‘brah-vay’) to a group of female performers.

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