Chances are that most people reading this have never attended an opera in their lives. What was once one of the most highly-esteemed and popular art forms is now scarcely appreciated, particularly in the United States.
In fact, only a recorded 1,657 opera performances occurred in the United States in the 2015/2016 season (via Operabase). This might seem like a high number at first, but — considering there were over 308 million U.S. citizens during that season — the number is actually significantly low compared proportionally to other countries.
One of only four grand opera producing companies in California, Opera SLO has most recently been planning a Valentine’s concert called That’s Amore, which will take place on Sunday, Feb. 12 at The Monday Club.
What may appear to be a simple performance, however, actually holds great cultural significance for the local fine arts scene in SLO as well as for the opera movement in general.
This is for two reasons:
- Opera is undergoing an important revival (aided by Opera SLO) that requires the helpful participation of college-aged adults if it is to succeed
- The Monday Club, the concert venue for That’s Amore, has historically been an avid supporter of the fine arts in SLO and continues to aid the local arts scene
1. Opera San Luis Obispo’s Mission
I spoke with Artistic Director Brian Asher Alhadeff of Opera SLO on the organization’s goals and the upcoming concert.
Alhadeff said that his goal with Opera SLO is to “propagate the brilliance and splendor of opera and enhance the community through a number of different opportunities.”
He explained that they do this by performing one to two large productions a year and engaging in extensive educational outreach to a wide range of demographics. For example, they host a children’s opera summer camp and have regular courses available for children through seniors.
Why is it so important to spread the knowledge and love of opera?
“It’s the Olympics of classical music. It’s where all the different performing arts come together on one stage to produce something. Now, only in opera will you see ballet, chorus, orchestra, soloists — you know, it’s everything together.” — Brian Asher Alhadeff
Alhadeff has personally been working with Opera SLO to focus their efforts more on appealing to the audience and getting more community members interested in opera.
To some, it might seem common-sense to use “the customer is always right” mentality, but this hasn’t been the case in the opera world.
“The last 30 years of history has focused more on performers and less on patrons, and so we’re losing connection to our patrons and sort of cannibalizing ourselves,” Alhadeff said.
He’s seen a change in the organization since joining, but he mentioned they are still struggling to reach one major demographic — college-aged adults and recent college graduates: “19 to 30 is a real tough crowd because you’re right in that period of time where opera was not engineered to speak to you.”
People in this age group (myself included) simply haven’t been encouraged enough to even consider going to opera performances or having any interest in the art.
Alhadeff offered a solution from the part of local college California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (or Cal Poly), which is to have professors urge their students to attend operas by finding relevance to the various subjects they teach.
He mentioned how those teaching on different languages and cultures could easily find reason to have their classes attend these performances. Additionally, he said he wished professors outside of stereotypical liberal arts departments, such as math and engineering professors, would find a way to do this too.
With a little help from Cal Poly professors, according to Alhadeff, attendance for that 19-30 demographic could increase dramatically.
As far as those of us who are included in that age group, all he asks is that we “give it a chance.”
“They can give it a chance; they can see what they’re missing … You have to taste it to be awakened by it.” — Brian Asher Alhadeff
Despite the struggle to connect with this group, he remains hopeful for the future of opera and believes that it’s really turning around.
– That’s Amore
What better way to spend a date than at an opera performance?
Alhadeff spoke very highly of an experience from back in his 20s in which he brought a girl to see a show in Los Angeles.
“It was a fantastic evening — she loved it, I loved it,” Alhadeff said. “I always remember that date. There’s like a thousand dates that I don’t remember. So this is one of those things that I think would be certainly unique for the right young people.”
I mean, you can only go out to dinner and the movies so many times before the charm of it fades away. An opera is a perfectly romantic and innovative date idea that would both score you major points with your significant other and help the local fine arts scene.
While That’s Amore is definitely pricier than Opera SLO’s average shows (tickets are listed for $85 per person), it sounds like the perfect place to celebrate the weekend before Valentine’s Day. (If you can’t afford that, as most people in the 19-30 age group can’t, at least try to attend one of their other shows — give it a chance.)
They’ve been undergoing preparations for the show for about three months now, and the hardest part of it all was finding the right pair of artists to perform, according to Alhadeff.
He hand-picked everyone involved, including singers Julie Davies and Zachary Gordin and pianist Dr. John Ballerino. Since they didn’t start out with initial chemistry or previous experience working with each other, Alhadeff said it’s been cool to watch their relationships evolve on stage.
Another fascinating thing about this event is the choice of venue.
2. The Monday Club’s Support for Fine Arts
According to the club’s website, “The Monday Club of San Luis Obispo is a dedicated group of women serving our community and maintaining our historic, Julia Morgan designed building. Our mission is to enhance the educational, civic, social and cultural quality of the San Luis Obispo community.”
I stopped by The Monday Club during their weekly Monday visitor hours of 2 to 5 p.m. and got a highly informative and welcoming tour from docent and club member Lisa Guy.
Throughout the tour, she told of the rich history of the building, its architect and the club itself:
The actual women’s club was established in 1925, while the building was constructed in 1933-1934. The building was designed by Julia Morgan, the first woman to be a licensed architect in California.
Morgan was involved in a number of women’s club buildings throughout California and was a strong supporter of female empowerment, especially in professional careers.
She was the first woman admitted to the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts (a major architecture school in France), undergoing harassment by her male peers during her education yet determinedly staying in school to prove them wrong.
In fact, she earned her certificate two years earlier than most of her male classmates.
She was a highly innovative architect for her time, designing buildings (such as Hearst Castle) that have withstood many earthquakes over the years — a skill almost unheard of in California architects from that period.
What is perhaps most interesting, considering the upcoming opera concert, is the club’s involvement in the arts.
In SLO’s past, “if you wanted singing and dancing and theater, then you needed to be somehow connected to The Monday Club,” Guy said.
She told stories about how the women used to put on a yearly show called Hijinx, “and they would come up with choreography and music and costumes and they would perform … and they had a tremendous amount of fun.”
Sometimes the shows got so crazy that the hotel next door would complain about the noise, so the women decided to board up the windows to soften it — but they didn’t stop their Hijinx performances. Like Julia Morgan persevering in her education, these women pushed on and refused to give into the complaints of men.
For The Monday Club women, their art was too strong to give up.
Unfortunately, these performances did end about 20 years ago, but there has been talk of bringing them back.
Apart from hosting their own musical events in the past, The Monday Club is currently involved in supporting the fine arts scene in SLO. They offer music and fine arts scholarships to local high school students and host a variety of events.
Brian Asher Alhadeff of Opera SLO said that The Monday Club’s efforts to help the fine arts in SLO are “really noble and wonderful … That’s just what we need; we need community encouragement.”
Alhadeff even said that he personally received scholarships and grants as a pianist back when he was in high school from similar organizations (including a women’s club). It helped encourage him to get where he is today.
He hopes to hold Opera SLO’s annual Valentine’s performance there again in the future (and not just because he likes their piano).
On behalf of The Monday Club, they’re “really happy” and “very excited to have this space used for a wonderful event like that,” according to Guy.
The combination of Opera SLO’s current movement to revive opera and The Monday Club’s history of support for the arts makes for a great cultural climate for That’s Amore.
It’s truly amazing how one Valentine’s performance on a stage built in the 1930s means so much more than people assume.