To run an opera company or any complex arts organization these days, you need to be something of a diplomat. There are various constituencies to attend to and court, donors to be stroked, audiences to be wooed.
But Matthew Buckman, who took over as general director of Fresno Grand Opera last season, has become noticeably blunt when he talks about what he thinks the organization has to do to survive.
“In communities our size, there are simply not enough people who seek out the purely 19th-century European opera experience to sustain an organization dedicated just to providing that,” he says. “Therefore, our company needs to better reflect our community while still providing operatic experiences.”
In other words, the days of providing an endless parade of “Toscas” and “Carmens” and “Butterflies” – a style and viewing experience of opera frozen, glacierlike, into a kind of never-changing monolith – are over. That model isn’t sustainable, Buckman says.
Welcome, then, to the latest incarnation of the “new” Fresno Grand Opera: an informal concert titled “Opera Remix” at the Tower Theatre. Billed as a mash-up of beloved opera arias and classic rock anthems, it features a cast of five professional opera singers crossing between such songs as Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Tuxedos are not encouraged.
There are aspects of the evening that might make opera purists blanch. The vibe will be informal. Singers will use a microphone. There will be a chamber orchestra providing accompaniment – but it will be joined by a rock combo. The original arrangements retain the text and melodies of the classic arias but offer surprises, such as an electronic beat in the opening bars of Bizet’s “Habanera” from “Carmen.”
Still, this isn’t an attempt to dumb down either genre. Those arrangements also offer fresh takes on the rock tunes, with evocative numbers from such groups as Chicago, the Beatles and Styx. Throughout, the singing will be with the power of the trained voices of sopranos Carrie Hennessey and Christine Capsuto, mezzo soprano Danielle Bond and tenors Gregory Pyatt and Christopher Bengochea.
“We’re not trying to make opera into rock or rock into opera,” says conductor Stuart Sims, who came up with the “Opera Remix” concept with Buckman. “We’re just trying to put them next to each other, so listeners can hear that great songs are great songs. We want people to hear that a love song from the 1860s is at the core the same as a love song from 1975.”
And if a rock-loving audience member finds something to like about a gorgeous opera tune, then all the better.
We’re not trying to make opera into rock or rock into opera. We’re just trying to put them next to each other, so listeners can hear that great songs are great songs.
Sims likens it to building a bridge: “First you walk across it, then make music on the other side of it and, then, hopefully people will follow you back over.”
“Opera Remix” isn’t a new concept for Sims and Buckman. The Fresno program actually made its debut four years ago at Modesto’s Townsend Opera. (Buckman also runs that organization, which joined administrative forces with Fresno Grand Opera in 2014.) The first “Opera Remix” was funded by a grant from the Irvine Foundation, which places a great importance on finding ways to make cultural organizations more sustainable.
The Modesto concert sold out that city’s State Theatre, which has a lot in common with the Tower in terms of ambiance. Like the planned Fresno event, food and drinks (including alcohol) were served. Afterward, the party moved outside the theater with an opportunity for audience members to perform karaoke, with the guest singers joining in.
The idea for “Opera Remix” came out of research that Sims, a music professor at California State University, Stanislaus, did for a doctoral thesis. He studied audience development and cultural engagement in the nonprofit arts.
What he found was that most of the nation’s classical music organizations are stuck in a kind of “museum mode” in terms of repertoire, content to preserve music that was written long ago. A bunker mentality has engulfed such organizations over the years. Opera, in particular, got “baked in the zeitgeist” and was never given a chance to change with the times, Sims says.
“Outreach and education became about me telling you why you should love and value the music I do, instead of me as a musician saying, ‘I would love for you to be in the audience, how do I reach you?’”
There are many potential reasons behind the museum mentality in classical music, especially opera. Singers have to train long and hard to achieve a level of skill and artistry in operatic technique, and in some ways they end up with a skill set that is too narrow. Opera is expensive, and with support for nonprofit organizations in the United States relying heavily on wealthy contributors, an air of exclusivity has long been a way to raise needed funds. For decades, many new operas were esoteric and just plain hard to listen to, and it made sense to present tried-and-true melodic favorites.
But with audiences graying and younger composers writing lush, relevant and listenable scores, times are changing.
For Buckman and Fresno Grand Opera, the point is clear: The repertoire has to be expanded. And new audiences need to be drawn in. Last season was evidence of that. Buckman brought the operatic version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” to Fresno. The 2015-16 season features two nontraditional mainstage presentations: the contemporary opera “Dead Man Walking” and Stephen Sondheim’s musical theater favorite “Sweeney Todd.” (If opera had been allowed to mature normally during the second part of the 20th century, Buckman says, rather than remain in museum mode, there wouldn’t have been the somewhat arbitrary division between opera and musical theater that exists today.)
This isn’t to say traditional opera won’t appear on the Fresno Grand Opera in future seasons. But it will have to learn to share.
Other art forms are constantly refreshing themselves, Buckman points out. “We’re not watching ‘Laverne and Shirley’ over and over,” he says. “We’re always going to watch new television shows. Yet somehow in our world, we just want to keep reimagining ‘Carmen’ over and over again.”
There will be more installments of “Opera Remix” to come, including one Oct. 16 at the Tower Theatre combining opera and slam poetry. The evening will feature Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg’s “Hydrogen Jukebox” alongside performances of original poetry by Fresno-based poets.
Now Buckman has to persuade the opera traditionalists to embrace the new – and bring in new audiences for whom opera is as stuffy as an old suit hanging in your grandfather’s closet. It’s a job for a diplomat – but one who knows how to deliver some tough talk.
“We need to better reflect our community,” he says. “We can’t be a slave to our tradition.”
- 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10
- Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave.
- www.fresnograndopera.org, (559) 442-5699
- $10 general, $25 premier seating, $75 all access pass (includes pre-event reception)