Don’t Be Afraid…It’s Just the Opera
Faced with the question of how to introduce young adults to the Shreveport Opera, Director of Patron Services and Outreach Nate Wasson first considered what they like to do and quickly settled on the idea of a party. Enter “Queen of the Night,” the Shreveport Opera’s first go at entertaining a new crowd. This all-out Halloween costume party is Friday the 13th of October. It will be 2023 the next time this auspicious date rolls around.
The Queen of the Night event is part of the organization’s grander plan to share the thrill of opera with new audiences and tackle head-on misperceptions, stereotypes and fears surrounding opera.
Building audiences for the performing arts is of interest to organizations across the country. Opera America in its magazine shared interesting research from a study led by the Wallace Foundation which gives insight into the reasons people attend (or don’t) and what audiences — especially young adults — are looking for in a performing arts experience, which competes with so many other entertainment options. It turns out young adults are seeking (among other things) entertaining experiences that are emotional and enriching, affordable and adventurous and intellectually challenging. They attach high value to social experiences with groups of their peers.
What: “Queen of the Night” Halloween Party 21+ presented by Shreveport Opera & SB Magazine
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13
Where: JR Gallery & Performance Space/Events on the Red, 624 Commerce St. in Shreveport
Attire: Costumes encouraged
Tickets: $30 includes admission & appetizers. Cash bar. Free parking. Go to shreveopera.tix.com, call 318.227.9503 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Shreveport Opera is responding to these findings and its own anecdotal research with action, ready to engage a new generation of opera enthusiasts. Executive Director Jennifer McMenamin credits the progressiveness of the board of directors, which recognizes the arts are changing and that the opera is no different. Chair of the board Dr. Bob Robinson is looking forward to the costume party (he’s going as Dracula) and commends Wasson for putting it all together to bring in new people.
“The opera in Shreveport-Bossier is growing and has been growing, but it’s changing. We’ve got to offer different things in different venues,” said Robinson.
Just the excitement surrounding this party is getting more people involved with the organization. Over 80 percent of the party planning committee is new to opera.
What else is new? There’s a different style of opera to see this year, and it’s not your grandmother’s opera. It’s short, it’s sexy and it’s an experience. “Art After Dark” is a series coming in February and will be performed in an unconventional, intimate, cabaret-style setting where guests can dress comfortably, eat and drink, and socialize with friends. These intriguing one-act operas, which recently debuted in Memphis and New York City, will be the perfect chance for newbies or “not-sures” to test the opera waters.
“Most people who are afraid of the opera have never been,” said General and Artistic Director Steve Aiken, an Alaskan native with no early exposure to opera.
Aiken started out interested in musical theatre but ended up training as an opera singer because his voice “lent itself to opera.” An interesting fact: traditional operas don’t use microphones; the power of the voice must be strong enough to be heard across a 40 to 60-piece orchestra. Aiken suggests that just the word “opera” conjures up many a stereotype, like a recent television commercial depicting an opera singer as a sizable individual carrying a spear and wearing breastplates and horns.
Wasson believes young adults may have no connection to the art form because they haven’t experienced it. The same elements people love in musical theatre and even movies — like the escape, the suspense, the drama — translate directly to opera, which is simply a great storyline told through music. Many well-loved movies and musical productions are actually adaptations of opera classics. Pretty Woman is reminiscent of La Traviatta. Rent was adapted from La Boheme.
Wasson said there’s more and more singing and acting in opera now, and less of the traditional “park and bark,” where an opera singer would take a few steps, stop, sing and repeat. Jodie Glorioso, Shreveport Opera board member and lecturer of theater at Centenary College, describes it as a blurring of the lines or a bridging, between opera and musical theater.
And many people are afraid they won’t understand an opera, since they are often performed in a foreign language. But operas have supertitles, which are large subtitles on a screen. Shreveport performances have supertitles even when the opera is performed in English. Aiken enthusiastically believes anyone can understand and enjoy the opera. He says you can get the story as much through music as through language, noting how people innately recognize impending doom or a love scene just by the sounds of the music.
Operas can delve deeply into the soul, giving audiences a real, personal, human connection with the performers. Aiken is passionate when he talks about the indescribable way music and drama and theater can affect you. A typical operatic story will suspend a moment in time, where a millisecond of pure, raw emotion is captured, dissected and conveyed over the course of a minute, or several minutes. “The opera is for everyone to enjoy. It is brilliant,” he said.
Opera offers both a cultural experience and a connection to the community. It’s rare for a city of this size to have a historical theater, a Broadway series, a symphony orchestra and an opera company, according to Glorioso. The Shreveport Opera company is in its 69th year, just one year shy of the Shreveport Symphony. And the Shreveport Opera is not a touring group. Local and regional individuals — the cast, crew, supers and symphony musicians — make up about 95 percent of the talent.
The Queen of the Night party and Art after Dark performances could be called lagniappe for local residents. The Shreveport Opera’s official 2017-2018 season includes two shows. The November performance gives audiences a chance to meet another Queen of the Night, one of the characters in the funny and fanciful grand opera, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which will be performed in English. Next is a contemporary musical theater production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in April. Due to its wide appeal and popularity, the show is scheduled to run for two straight nights. Both regular season shows will be performed at Riverview Theater and ticket prices start at just $25.
The Shreveport Opera has shown it’s able to capture the timeless operas of the past, embrace the contemporary and ever-changing operas yet to come, and be receptive and responsive to the preferences of new audiences. Aiken encourages everyone to see at least one opera performance this season.
“You don’t need a tux or a gown, all you need is a ticket. Come as you are…we want you to walk away thrilled,” he said.
The Shreveport Opera knows how to put on a great show, and the Queen of the Night party won’t disappoint. Shreveport’s very own entertaining lip-synching female impersonator, Sarina Styles, also known as Donnie Cox, has been cast to host the Queen of the Night 21-and-up party. Expect to be entertained, surprised, excited and amused. A co-host and performer at Central Station in Shreveport and a cast member at Bourbon Pub in New Orleans, the incomparable Styles will be all over the room, performing all the hottest hits, mixing and mingling and taking photos with guests. With at least three costume changes in store, she’s sure it will be something to talk about for years to come. Sponsors for the event are Steve and Jennifer McMenamin, Nelson & Hammons, Allen Phelps and Jason Heard.
Anyone who frequents the area nightclub scene will be familiar with the DJ of the night, K945’s Jay Whatley. He’s unquestionably going to keep the dance floor full playing Halloween favorites like Monster Mash and Thriller. And he’s also planning to entertain in one of his favorite ways: mixing classic songs with “really insanely popular current songs that people know and love” to create all new sounds.
Guests will enjoy cuisine by local favorite Marilynn’s Place, and the festivities of the night include cocktails and a costume contest, door prizes and a dance-off. Styles said, “it’s a chance to dance for your life, show your best moves and hope you win.”
Pop-up performances will be part of the party’s surprising and unexpected treats. The committee is tight-lipped on the details but uses words like “nostalgic” and “serendipitous” to describe the single and group acts planned.
Party-goers will see right away the Shreveport Opera’s production capabilities according to Wasson, who is also an actor and stage director. Ambience is king. Or in this case, queen. The venue space at 624 Commerce Street — housed in a block of century-old historic buildings in downtown Shreveport — will be fully transformed into a fantastical and whimsical setting with special lighting and opera stage design set pieces throughout. There will be a custom backdrop for selfies, of course.
Whatley and Styles are invested in more than just entertaining. Both love the performing arts and are excited to help spread the word about what’s new at the Shreveport Opera. Together with the planning committee, they hope that when the lights go out, Queen of the Night revelers will leave with perhaps a different impression of opera than when they entered. The Shreveport Opera promises, “this party won’t be a drag!”