February 8, 2019
Jamie Allbritten, Artistic Director and General Director of the Piedmont Opera, is a man living a dream and a nightmare at the same time. The dream is mounting wonderful opera performances that has opera lovers calling from Illinois for tickets and the support of a great staff, a supply of local talent, and a generous donor list. The nightmare is paying for those wonderful performances because, per square foot, an opera can be the most expensive live performance to mount. Allbritten understands and accepts the dichotomy, and, by any standard you would care to apply to the American opera scene, especially in small cities, the Piedmont Opera is ahead of the curve. The trick is staying there. Only about two percent of all Americans regularly attend opera and support it. Applied to Winston-Salem, that amounts to about 4880 folks who, if they all attended, would almost fill the Stevens Center for the normal three-performance run of a single opera. That’s what happens for most performances of the Piedmont Opera, so it is at worst meeting national standards and at best exceeding them. Okay, so opera is on life-support in Winston-Salem and breathing regularly if not easily. But if you are a faithful reader of Opera News, then you’re familiar with their scare headlines claiming two percent isn’t enough to sustain opera in America long-term because the average opera supporter is headed upstairs and the costs of mounting a decent production continues to climb into the stratosphere. Maestro Allbritten has a point of view on this claim that on one level challenges this assumption and on another reinforces it. A dichotomy rather like the one he faces every day as he crosses the threshold of Opera House on Holly. What follows is his answer to my question: “Is opera in America dying?” – Warren Dunn
Maestro Jamie Allbritten of the Piedmont Opera says the way to keep the love of opera burning bright is to “break the stereotype” of opera, which, presumably, is regarded as something reserved for the wealthy and elderly, by getting school-age kids “into the temple for the live action,” where their young minds will be blown away by the quintessential artistic expression of the “passion of life lived large”
But first you have to round them up because unless they’ve had determined parents, they’re not voluntarily hovering around the stage door waiting for the diva to sign autographs.
Assuming you enroll the school system and other youth-oriented organizations in the round-up, then the future of opera in America is assured because an early experience with opera will rest in the souls of those youngsters until their full head of hair begins turning white and they can afford to go to dinner and a show, according to Allbritten.
“At some point in their lives, when their families are established and they can pay the freight they’ll pick up on those embedded passions and they’ll become the folks you see at performances. And a new crop will be right behind them,” Allbritten says, “waiting to take their seats.”
It happened to him, almost by happen-chance, when he was a teenager, and he is certain that it continues to happen to others now just like it happened to him thirty-five years ago. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.” Case closed. Almost.
Making sure that it does happen occupies a lot of Allbritten’s time and energy and that’s the other side of the coin. It isn’t going to happen unless opera lovers make it happen. Piedmont Opera is certainly trying. There are several youth-oriented initiatives underway to assure that youngsters get exposed to opera on their way to becoming a member of the audience. There’s the Youth Chorus, the Fletcher Tours, and Student Night. He has also visited every school in the county to promote the life-enhancing experience of hearing what the human voice is capable of and, for the cost-conscious, the creativity of staging an opera so that it conveys the intent of the composer without breaking the bank.
In a time of our understandable national obsession with math and science, and “an agonizing reappraisal of what we Americans hold dear,” winning the hearts and minds of educators that the arts are every bit as important as solving an algebra equation isn’t easy. Our national “debate” today reminds us of what John Adams wrote to Abigail: (Somewhat paraphrased because the original is pretty wordy) “I must study war and politics (so that) our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” He was talking about three generations until America was prepared to embrace the arts.
Well, this coming generation will be the 81st since the nation’s founding and we’re still studying “war and politics.” Maybe it’s about time we starting pointing the 81st more toward things that feed the spirit a little more aggressively. What would happen in Winston-Salem if we endorsed a 1% add-on to the property taxes that would support the arts here? You know, establish a tax-supported Arts Commission, like Raleigh, that would take direction from a reinvigorated Arts Council. Game changer. Shouldn’t be too difficult for a city that established the first Arts Council in the nation. It would add about $50 to my property taxes and, given how much we’ve enjoyed what Winston-Salem offers, almost to the point of exhaustion, we’d be willing to cough up at least that much more in our taxes. It would create a steady stream of support for something that, according to a study by Americans for the Arts and conducted by economists from the George Institute of Technology, added $156.8 million, up $20 million from five years ago, to Winston-Salem’s economy.
With the spurt of hotel rooms being built and being a city of “Artists and Innovation,” Winston-Salem is at a tipping point toward becoming a true destination – maybe even one capable of supporting a “festival” on the order of Charleston and Santa Fe (especially if we could dredge out a harbor and plant a few mountains). Let’s hope the rumors are true. It would add a feather in the cap of the City of the ARTS and Innovation.
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