Opera Delaware: New Tactics = New Fans

Karen Jessee

, Uncategorized

Two-weekend festival in May is drawing opera lovers from across the country

In May, Wilmington will be the destination of choice for opera lovers as distant as Santa Fe, N. M., and Colorado, as well as New York and Washington, D. C. The reason: an opera festival spanning two weeks with the focus on Shakespeare. It’s the latest effort by OperaDelaware and General Director Brendan Cooke to open new horizons for the art form in Delaware by presenting the local company’s most ambitious pieces.

Cooke is married with two children, but he claims that OperaDelaware, which he has headed since 2012, is his third child—and this one demands a million-dollar budget. Established in 1945, it is the 11th oldest opera company in the nation, and its venue—the Opera House on Market Street—provides a lush and centrally located site for OperaDelaware productions.

Despite these advantages, Cooke, who has a master’s in music from the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and who founded the Baltimore Concert Opera, acknowledges that OperaDelaware had to change its tactics to keep from closing its doors like so many other opera companies.

OperaDelaware's General Director, Brendan Cooke (Photo courtesy of OperaDelaware)

OperaDelaware’s General Director, Brendan Cooke (Photo courtesy of OperaDelaware)

“The old ways simply were no longer working,” he says. “We analyzed the use of our physical space at our Riverfront Studio, our ticket sales, our strategies, and developed something new that would allow us to present staged operas of the highest quality once again.” As a result, Cooke is putting a new face on this 400-year-old art form.

The first makeover: cabaret style programs that allowed OperaDelaware to expand and
develop its audiences here at home. At these casual gatherings at OperaDelaware Studios on the Riverfront, performers gave attendees the tools and vocabulary to appreciate what is often viewed as a high and mighty art form. OperaDelaware presented meaningful opera in an accessible way that developed new audiences. Says Cooke, “We brought in our loyal opera lovers, and they in turn brought friends and family, all new to opera, into this setting.”

The second makeover: an Opera Festival that is drawing fans from across the country. On May 14 and 15, 20, 21 and 22, OperaDelaware will offer three performances of a lost setting of Franco Faccio’s Hamlet (Amleto), an East Coast premiere of a work written in 1865, and two performances of Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff. Hamlet and Falstaff will be presented at the Grand at the same time. On Friday, May 19, Shakespeare in Song will be performed at the OperaDelaware Studio.

Anne Midgette, one of the nation’s top music critics, made Hamlet a not-to-be-missed choice for the season in her February 7 Washington Post column. “It is well worth hearing for any lover of Italian opera,” says Midgette. “Because it’s going on to the festival in Bregenz, Austria, this summer and is likely to get quite a bit of attention there, you can say you heard it before that.”

Only 30 percent of funding for these unique opera events comes from ticket sales. Other funding for OperaDelaware comes from numerous foundations, individual and corporate donors as well as the state. It also is the recipient of an Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts—only one of two organizations to receive such funding this year in Delaware.

Says Cooke: “Great cities have great opera companies. Wilmington has great restaurants, hotels and theaters. We are a train ride away from New York and Washington. We are the perfect location for an opera festival. Why not invite these other cities to see our city, stay overnight, eat here, enjoy our entertainment, and revel in our history? There’s something for everyone here.”

As for the opera experience itself, Cooke asserts that there are two kinds of people: those who love opera and those who don’t love opera…yet. “You don’t need a tuxedo or a tiara; you need to be willing to be transformed. You need to appreciate that these
singers have devoted their lives to training their voices with the strength and stamina to fill gargantuan opera houses without the luxury of a microphone.”

Check out the ticket prices and the dress code (none) at
operade.org.

Says Cooke, “Go to live theatre: experience that moment when the last note is sung, when there is a hush, a pause, and suddenly the audience leaps to its feet and bursts into thunderous applause demanding encores. Go to the opera. Prepare to be transformed.”

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