TAFTO 2007 Contribution – Kim Pensinger Witman

The second offering in our pair of Take A Friend To The Orchestra Opera contributions is from Kim Witman, who holds the distinct honor of being an arts manager who got in on the ground floor of “behind the scenes” arts blogging. Her blog aims to allow both patrons and aspiring opera performers to see what’s really happening on the other side of the footlights and the audition table. Sometimes it’s exactly what you expect, other times it isn’t.

Regardless, Kim’s blog, as well as her TAFTO contribution, assure that you’ll learn something new and fascinating which will bring you closer to one of the few live performing art forms which allow patrons to revel equally in both sight and sound…

Take A Friend To The Orchestra Opera
By: Kim Pensinger Witman

True confessions.

I didn’t see my first opera until my mid-20’s.
If I hadn’t entered this wonderful and crazy world as someone who works within the business, there’s a good chance I mightn’t have been around opera at all. I’m not an “insider,” and for the first part of my career, I felt the burden keenly. I got my first job in the opera business at age 29, and I always seemed to be surrounded by colleagues who were singing along with the Met broadcasts before they knew how to read. For years I played “catch up,” and am still easily intimidated.

There are operas that I really dislike.

I went to my Opera Brain Trust for much of the advice that follows. The singers on the Wolf Trap Opera roster are experts at “Taking Friends to Opera,” as they are mostly just normal folks with parents, friends and partners who view their choice of career with confusion and consternation. They were generous and enthusiastic in their responses to my request for advice.

My own thoughts on the potential pitfalls encountered when introducing folks to opera fall into three general categories, which my compulsively organized nature is thrilled to dub the “Three E’s.” Since Drew has graciously included more opera-centric folks like me in this TAFTO edition, I will refer specifically to opera in my comments. But if you want to replace “opera” with “orchestra” in the Three E’s, I think you might be surprised to find out how well it works.

#1 – Evangelism
A word of warning to the opera lover: Don’t proselytize. If you love opera and want to share its glories with your friends, don’t promise them a transformational experience the first time out. Yes, in a lifetime of opera-going, your life is significantly richer because you embrace this art form. But raising the stakes with a potential convert is likely to backfire. It’ll make him feel as if this single introductory experience has to be life-changing. (It’s unlikely to be so.) Or it will put her under such pressure to absorb and synthesize everything about the experience that she’ll be overwhelmed. I’ve seen it happen.

A corresponding word to the “newbie.” If your opera fan friend is zealous in her attempts to convert you, be patient and understanding. The enthusiasm comes from an honest and good place, even if it is a little overwhelming. Smile and wave, as they say.

#2 – Exclusiveness / Elitism
A double dose of “E” as befits this most important topic.

We all love to be on the inside track. Opera lovers adore being part of an exclusive club. It means that we can speak with authority (not to mention complete and unwavering conviction!) about things like high E-flats, portamenti and dramaturgical choices. And we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it – consider your friends who can have hour-long conversations about baseball stats. Neither should we hesitate to share these tidbits with our opera newbie friends. We should just approach them differently.

Insider information can be delivered with an aura of intimidation – the subtext being that an outsider can never hope to enter the secret society. Or it may be delivered with an attractive air of conspiracy. How much more enjoyable a performance will be when your friend knows that the tenor aria in the second act is like walking a tightrope without a net or that the costume change before the third scene is being accomplished offstage left with an army of dressers.

Cultural elitism has a justifiably bad rap. No one wants to feel as if they’re being excluded, especially from something that is deemed “good for you.” (Ah, but that’s another topic.) The wealth of information surrounding opera is totally declassified. It’s all over the place – on the internet, in the chat rooms (heaven help us!), and at the coffee shop. Share it in a way that conveys a genuine enthusiasm for this very interesting and endlessly surprising art form.

To the newbie: It’s going to feel a little weird for a while. Opera has a very specific subculture and a whole seemingly indecipherable set of rules. Oddly enough, many of them have sprung naturally from the demands of the art form and the history of the business. Regard them with some amusement. Then reject the things that don’t make sense to you. None of these trappings are critical to your participation and enjoyment.

#3 – Extrapolation
I confessed it at the outset. There are some operas I don’t like. (No, I’m not going to tell you which ones.) Actually, the fact that there is a single term that applies to everything from Monteverdi chamber opera to operetta to Schoenberg is more than a bit odd. It’s as if we were lumped all team sports together and required that a fan be equally interested in hockey and baseball. Opera is an unwieldy and wide-ranging thing. That’s glorious because there truly is something for almost everyone. But it’s dangerous because a first-time opera patron might extrapolate an unsatisfactory or ambiguous experience to cover the rest of everything that is “opera.”

It’s important to introduce your potential opera-goer to something that has a decent chance of hitting his sweet spot. Don’t take someone who loves spectacle and bells-and-whistles to a Britten chamber opera. Don’t take an easily overwhelmed thoughtful lover of art and literature to an updated grand opera. And if you find that you’ve treated your friend to a less-than-stellar performance (it happens…), be honest about it!

To the newbie: If your first experience is miscalculated, don’t extrapolate your reaction to all of opera. Think about what you didn’t like, and talk about it at length with your experienced opera friend. It doesn’t mean that you will dislike every other opera, or even that you would be unhappy at a subsequent performance of this same opera. It sounds like a cop-out, but it’s true: For all but a very few people, this takes a while. Yes, good things take time. I don’t like to preach, and I swear I don’t mean to, but there’s no clearer way to say it.

Does it mean that with careful choices and repeated exposure, anyone can be an opera fan? Well, no. It may not be for you. It doesn’t mean that you failed or that opera itself is unworthy. There are lots of wonderful things in this world that aren’t part of my life. And opera may be one of the ones that are not destined to be part of yours.

The Opera Brain Trust:
Some spot-on advice from my singer friends and colleagues. Common themes, but a wide range of responses, particularly in the “ideal first opera” category. Proving that even within a small sample of people who have a good deal of experience, there’s a wide range of valid responses.

What do you consider an ideal opera for a newbie?

It depends on the person. For the Bridget Jones’ Diary set, it’s La bohème.

Best first opera: The Magic Flute!

The perfect newbie opera is Madama Butterfly. It’s hard not to be moved by the piece. Butterfly also tends to inspire interesting post-performance discussions.

Carmen, Bohème, & Barber

Anything done by an interesting director.

Carmen, Bohème, Ariadne auf Naxos, Tosca, Barber of Seville.

Anything American with a good plot.

I highly recommend NOT going to a Mozart opera. As fabulous as they are, I don’t think they’re right for total newbies. I liken Mozart to Shakespeare. It’s wonderful, but it’s not the first thing you want to see if you’ve never been to a play.

I do not recommend Così to anybody who wants to like opera.

Turandot is a great first opera ….my mom went to The Marriage of Figaro for her first opera and couldn’t understand why no one sang the ‘Figaro’ aria. When she went to Turandot she was transported and became an opera lover for life.

What can the newbie expect to experience? What advice do you have?

You should expect an audience that behaves a little more rigidly than in a movie theater.

You can expect to have a translation supertitle system in place to understand what’s going on onstage.

Trust your natural responses. (It’s OK to like what you like and hate what you hate.)

Focus on (1) the physical impact of a voice being heard acoustically (2) how operatic singing is like someone’s emotions/guts being thrown into the air (3) how the voice interplays with the orchestra, and (4) how the singers and composer create their characters. Remember: no one is using a microphone. (That alone is pretty amazing in the 21st century.)

Don’t feel as if you have to worry about the words at all.

Find out a little about the structure of the evening. Are there separate arias/pieces or will it all run together? How long does each act last?

Many newbies to opera feel surprisingly self-conscious. I encourage all newbies to relax and behave as they would at any event where they are audience members. (I am tickled by using the term newbies.)

Ask your knowledgeable friend to put together a short greatest hits disc/playlist from the opera. Listen to it a couple of times before you go. When you hear these tunes again, it will be like meeting an old friend in an unfamiliar place.

Find out some inside facts about the actual performers. Check out a few websites and put a real face on these people. The general public feels as if they “know” Tom Cruise….they should feel that way about Nathan Gunn. (He’s cuter, anyhow!)

It’s FINE to be bored occasionally. I get bored too! Just let your mind wander and be Zen about it. The show will bring you back.

>From a thoughtful bass colleague:

We live in a world where so much of our entertainment is reality-based, and opera is the ultimate in “un-reality.” But in the last few years especially, the pendulum of public taste is swinging toward the fantastic (read: operatic.) Our television programming, aside from the glut of “reality” shows, is filling up not with more kitchen-sink drama, but with shows about ghosts and superheroes. Even sitcoms are populated with characters that, in an aria-like fashion, stop time for a moment and share their feelings with the audience in bizarre ways – think Scrubs or Ally McBeal. In the movies, consider the popularity of Pan’s Labyrinth. Harry Potter, even. Tell newbies to expect something that requires them to set aside all expectation of reality. These people on stage are singing all the time. Loudly. They’re very emotional. And more often than not, they make really poor choices that any reasonable person would not make.

And this insight from a baritone:

Opera stories move slowly and provide a lot of time for reflection on both the part of the characters and the audience. This is not a bad thing. La bohème will elicit a deeper emotional response than most other entertainment; you just need to allow for the extra time it takes.

And this, an epilogue on Elitism and Extrapolation:

It’s unfair in this age of instant gratification, but I think a lot of good art is complex and elitist in nature and takes some effort to be involved – you have to go and meet it instead of being assaulted by it. I think it’s also tough to explain to people that if you don’t like a movie, you don’t walk out of the theatre and say you don’t like movies. You know you don’t like THAT movie, and you see something else later. Opera isn’t too different than that.

So, by all means, do take a friend to the opera. I’ll see you there.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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