At Seattle Opera, the “Ring” is the thing.
Richard Wagner’s 137-year-old, four-opera epic, based on the same Norse legends that inspired J.R.R.Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, has been a centerpiece of Seattle Opera’s artistic mission since 1975. A long-held dream of the company’s late founder, Glynn Ross, the “Ring” also brought his successor, Speight Jenkins, to Seattle — first as a lecturer on Wagner, and then as the new general director dreaming of his own take on the opera world’s greatest challenge. These operas are bigger, longer, more heroic in their requirements than anything else on the stage … and fans tend to be downright fanatical.
This summer, eager opera fans have come to Seattle from all 50 states and 22 countries to hear and see the four operas, creating an economic impact described by a recent Seattle Opera study as $39 million (in ticket sales, travel costs and related expenditures). They’re flocking to what may be the last appearance of the widely touted “Green ‘Ring,’ ” a beautiful and much-admired production that premiered in 2001 and has been performed every four years since.
What keeps audiences coming? Who are these people — and what is Seattle Opera doing to ensure there will be still more Ringheads in the future?
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These questions are especially relevant now, when Seattle Opera is wrestling its way out of a $1 million deficit that made national headlines last year (at this writing, the deficit has been reduced to $758,000). Opera executive director Kelly Tweeddale, however, says that while the 2012-13 season’s figures have not been announced, the company is ahead of previous numbers in both ticket sales and fundraising. This coming season (2013-14) will be the last in the tenure of the popular Jenkins, a fact that has “encouraged donors and ticket buyers — there is a lot of enthusiasm to celebrate Speight in his final year.”
Who attends the “Ring”?
“The ‘Ring’ is so intense — it’s the Olympics of opera for the presenters, but also for the attendees,” Tweeddale says.
“The audiences tend to be a little more educated. Of the regular-season audience, 32 percent have postgraduate degrees. For the ‘Ring,’ it’s 39 percent.”
Women comprise 38 percent of the regular-season attendees; 32 percent of the “Ring.” The latter audiences also skew slightly to the older side: 86 percent are older than 45, compared with 81 percent in the season. Other factors, such as income and marital status, are pretty much the same between the two audiences.
“There’s a sort of stigma about the ‘Ring’ that you have to know a lot about it in order to enjoy it,” Tweeddale observes.
“But we had visitors from Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts who did not speak a great deal of English or German, and who had no prior experience of the ‘Ring.’ The ‘Ring’ was an absolutely transformational experience for them.”
Because “Ring” audiences go through four intense and lengthy experiences together in a short time span, the experiences in the Wagnerian trenches tend to forge some impassioned discussions, arguments and comparisons among the attendees. Seattle Opera fosters this process in a number of ways — including a welcome event for donors who have given $1,000-plus, where they get to know each other socially before they ever get to their seats in McCaw Hall.
Seattle Opera, administrators say, also has created the largest “young people at the opera” group of its kind in the country: the Bravo! Club, for opera fans younger than 40. The membership has varied from the current 515 to a prerecession high of 689; 3,695 households have participated since the club’s origins in 1996. In 2012-13, ticket revenue from Bravo! Club subscribers exceeded $230,000.
First-time “Ring” attendee and Bravo! Club president, attorney Marti McCaleb, had no expectation of becoming a Ringhead when she got passes to the dress rehearsals.
“I went to the dress out of obligation, because I thought I needed to have that experience,” she said afterward.
“But I didn’t expect to love the ‘Ring’! Now I am a total convert, and I’m going again (to the third cycle). These are such powerful shows … and the music is stunning. I’m really excited about the idea of attending again!”
McCaleb, who grew up in various Southern states in a military family, went to a traveling production of “Aida” in high school “and I despised it,” as she remembers. It wasn’t until she attended a better production of “La Bohème” that she realized opera could be highly entertaining. A friend in Seattle Opera’s Young Artist Program urged her to attend when McCaleb moved to Seattle. After four days in this city, she joined the Bravo! Club, which she describes as “a comfortable and close group of singles in their 20s and 30s. I’ve met a lot of nice people who have become good friends. About 65 percent of the members are single, but it’s not a dating service; it’s a group with similar interests.”
Now that McCaleb realizes “the ‘Ring’ is more than women in pointy helmets and a dangerous, powerful ring,” she has set aside a week to “nerd out and go to all the lectures and events. This is an amazing piece of our culture.”
Appealing to the pre-K set
Seattle Opera does not begin its educational efforts with potential patrons in their 20s and 30s, however. Those begin in prekindergarten, with a program called “Opera Time” presenting musical storytelling, which reached 1,591 kids in the 2012-13 season. A touring program, “Opera Goes to School,” served 13,163 students, with hourlong programs of fully staged operas in schools and community centers. This year, Seattle Opera commissioned and premiered a new trilogy (“Our Earth”) of short operas for young children, with music by Eric Banks, a libretto in English by Irene Keliher, and performances featuring the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra.
For middle- and high-school students and youth-music groups, there’s “Experience Opera,” offering passes to dress rehearsals (4,390 attendees last season), backstage tours and visits to the costume and scene shops (as well as 2,929 attendees at classroom visits). Seattle Opera also presents “opera camps,” workshops and other programs for school breaks and summer holidays.
For adults, the company presents pre-opera talks, chats with the staff and post-performance Q&As with Jenkins, as well as tours and performances by singers in the Young Artists Program. (That program has fallen victim to the budgetary crisis for 2013-14; Seattle Opera is working to reinstate it.) Additionally, the company puts out a huge amount of content online, on its own site as well as on Facebook and Twitter, including musical selections, videos and historical notes.
The future looks bright, Tweeddale observes.
“The 45-plus age group has always been the heart and soul of our company,” she says of audience development. “And the boomers are edging into our sweet spot. Experiences are the important thing to this age group. They have more discretionary time now, and they want experiences that are deep and meaningful. It means eco-tourism; it means aesthetic development. It means the ‘Ring.’ ”
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.