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VOL. 126 | NO. 200 | Thursday, October 13, 2011

New Song

Opera Memphis general director taps new, former customers

By Sarah Baker

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A city with an opera company speaks volumes about that city.

Opera Memphis wardrobe supervisor Sona Amroyan fits a costume for Lee Bisset, who will be singing Puccini’s classic drama “Tosca” in her American debut on Oct. 29 and Nov. 1. 
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Not only does it have a population that enjoys the opera and will support the concept, but it says something about the overall artistic health of a city.

That’s what Opera Memphis general director Ned Canty has been preaching ever since he was recruited to Memphis last December. He brings with him an impressive resume, an unbridled enthusiasm and a vision for rejuvenating the nonprofit.

“You need to have a great symphony, which Memphis has,” Canty said. “You need to have a great theater, which Memphis has. You need to have stagehands, scene painters, people who can make the costumes. All of those things can only happen in a city of a particular quality, and Memphis is one of those in a very short list of cities that for over 50 years have supported opera.”

Twenty million people attend the opera annually, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, but only 100 cities in the U.S., spread across 28 states, have operas.

Because opera is such an intense experience – one that encompasses many art forms and calls on every sense – Canty has launched an equally intense rebranding and marketing campaign.

With the help of local creative agency doug carpenter & associates LLC, Opera Memphis mailed 4,000 brochures to past and present subscribers of the opera in an effort to tap into its customer base and promote the new and improved product.

Not stopping there, Opera Memphis also established a presence on billboards, social media, radio and television. The reason, Canty said, is because the opera experience starts long before the curtain goes up.

“People who become opera lovers are people who don’t like vanilla,” he said. “They want something that is just going to make them either laugh until they cry or make them just straight out cry. And so, what we tried to do is make sure that the new campaign reflected everything that we love about opera, which is its intensity, its power, its scope and sweep.”

This year’s season kicks off with “Tosca” Oct. 29 and Nov. 1 at the Orpheum Theatre. “Tosca” is full of political prisoners, lustful lovers, tortured souls, secret police, murder and deceit. Tickets are also now on sale for the black-tie season premiere gala, slated for opening night of the show and featuring dinner and an after-party with the cast.

Ned Canty, general director of Opera Memphis, has credits as a stage director at numerous companies.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The remainder of the season includes two viewings each of “Die Fledermaus” in January and “Don Pasquale” at the end of March and early April.

Canty’s vision was to produce a balance of shows that would appeal to both the “recognition” side and the “discovery” side of Opera Memphis’ audience.

“When I first got here, I targeted people who used to subscribe and stopped subscribing,” Canty said. “A portion of them said, ‘I stopped subscribing because all you do are these crazy new operas I’ve never heard of.’ And then an equal number said, ‘I stopped subscribing because all you ever do are the old standards, and you never do anything new.’ I’m trying to be very sensitive, listen as much as possible and create opportunities that are going to excite both groups of people.”

Part of the discovery side of the equation involves a New Audience Initiative, in which Opera Memphis teamed up with The Assisi Foundation to send 100 people to all three of this season’s shows free of charge. In return, selected participants will fill out brief surveys and be interviewed before and after each show.

It’s something that’s been tried on a much smaller scale in a few other cities, Canty said, but he’s not aware of any other company that’s doing it to the extent that Opera Memphis is.

The idea is to invest upfront to make for years of successful seasons down the road. And Canty is bullish that Memphis’ “artistic curiosity” will willingly respond to the challenge.

“One of the things that’s really struck me about Memphis – and I see it everywhere, from rotary clubs to the Cooper-Young festival – is that when I talk to people that haven’t been to the opera, there is almost no one who says, ‘No, no, no, I’m not interested,’” he said. “Almost everybody says, ‘I’ve always wanted to go,’ and for whatever reason, they haven’t.”

Because opera is an activity that most people are invited into, the New Audience Initiative gives those who are on the fence an excuse to come while also gathering useful data and feedback.

Furthermore, it helps Opera Memphis define the barriers to entry that television and movies have force-fed society for years.

“Anybody who has the opportunity owes it to themselves to go and at least check out one, two, three operas and see for themselves if they like it, rather than having that decision made for you by a commercial director,” Canty said. “My target audience is always the person who’s walking in and seeing their first opera for the first time. I want to make sure that if that is the only opera they ever see, they think opera is fantastic.”

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