Indianapolis Opera productions involve hundreds

"There is an audience out there," says James Caraher, Indianapolis Opera's artistic director. "We don't do this for ourselves, it's not self-serving." IO's season and production decisions are made with the intent of engaging people in the seats with what's happening on stage. Like other performing organizations, IO wants to send patrons out the door not only feeling, but actually being enriched on a very personal level. Theater curtain blocks audience from actress in the quiet moments before showtime.

Audience is also at the top of John Pickett's agenda. As IO's executive director, he's bent on bringing people through the doors of Clowes Memorial Hall, IO's performance home. And he, too, underscores "up close and personal."

"A quality marketing campaign is reaching individuals one at a time to create excitement for each to invest time, and a passion to invest money."

First item is always "the season" when talking about keeping and getting audience. Like a marriage it's "something old and something new."

Traditionally, there's "sort of a formula," trying to get variety over a cycle of years regarding language (Italian, German, Russian, French, English), musical styles, comedy/tragedy and size. When dollars are involved, covering cost is the determining factor.

The average production cost is $275,000-$300,000, without overhead for operational cost. Two hundred people on the payroll include 60 in the orchestra, 30 stagehands, 12 wardrobe, 40-60 chorus members, leads and supernumeraries, dancers, designers, stage director and choirmaster. This season's bill includes a lead cast of seven for Lucia, 10 for Barber, 15 for Butterfly and a whopping 21 for Crucible.

"There are 10 or 12 operas people love to see over and over," Caraher remarks, "such as the comedic Barber of Seville and the tragic Lucia di Lammermoor. There are some, like Madama Butterfly, on almost everyone's 'To do before I die' list. But for growth we need to do new things. Even with 20th century American opera we're a century behind."

Already 40 years old, The Crucible, Robert Ward and Bernard Stambler's Pulitzer Prize-winning opera based on Arthur Miller's play, is new to IO's repertoire. It's a daunting enterprise because of the size of its cast and the expected hard sell. The IO board of directors questioned offering it during an economic downturn.

"Jim made the case for why it's important for us to do it. The board listened. We're doing it March 4 and 6, 2005. We have identified what our community deserves in terms of an opera company. We have to raise the budget by a half-million dollars annually to meet that challenge," Pickett states.

If ticket sales supply 33-40 percent of the budget, it means selling a lot more than the present total. It means filling houses to at least 98 percent capacity every performance.

Without missing a beat Caraher delivers the answer to the obvious question: Where are all these new opera buffs coming from?

"They live here and already fill Clowes and the Murat. When I see touring companies come into town and people unhesitatingly paying far more than the cost of an IO ticket, I am convinced there are the numbers in this community to become opera subscribers."

It's not an either/or, Pickett adds. "Think of the number of people who enter Clowes Hall for the first time because of Toyota Broadway in Indianapolis, and how that opens opportunities for them to learn about participating in other live performances."

While connecting with these potential opera subscribers is Pickett's goal, participation is the operative strategy that bridges audience building with the process of creating the performance.

"Cultural development is reaching one person at a time," Pickett states. "We introduce both the experience of attending an opera and of investing in its production. We aren't just selling the show. We're offering an excitement of being involved."

It can be as easy as coming to Clowes three-fourths of an hour prior to curtain for an overview about the opera, presented by the affable Michael Sells. Included in the price of the ticket, it's also an opportunity to ask questions, offer opinions, engage in conversation and meet other people.

"Opera in Europe grew around the party," Pickett explains. IO offers a variety of social settings around each production: back stage tours with a chance to meet crew and singers; dinner or luncheon preceding each performance allows for time to chat with the dozen folks who keep IO up and running; after-work "Opera Lite" gatherings in diverse locations around the city where young professionals meet with members of IO's Ensemble and talk about what goes into making opera a career.

Participation can also be hands-on, such as sponsoring a performer for a particular opera and building a friendship; volunteering for fund-raising events or to greet people at performances; helping with the Ensemble, the young company of four singers and an accompanist-director who provide residencies and programs in schools and other community locations statewide.

The perks in being involved are manifold, Caraher and Pickett say. It's building community, it's having fun, it's not just filling a seat for two hours.

"It's getting carried away with the experience, the excitement," Pickett insists.

"It's opening yourself up to allow opera to wash over you with music and theater coming together," Caraher adds.

Marketing and aesthetics intersect when print materials visually reflect the season and raise the comfort level of first-timers.

"The teamwork concept is most important," Caraher states. "We're building relationships on stage and off. There has to be an opinion as a company look. As artistic director, I'm responsible for that. But everyone becomes part of the process. I love to interfere with staging during rehearsals. Singers who have done the role bring a wealth of knowledge. Singers are the ones who get up on stage and sell it. It's a logical outpouring of their experiences. It's organic and fun. IO's aesthetic is clearcut, if people on stage are enjoying it so will the audience."

"We work to have shared core values as a company; trust and openness on all levels," Pickett adds. That includes board members, administrative staff, performers and backstage crew - and audience. "We encourage dialogue with our audience."

Are the dynamics of IO unique in this respect? In some respects, yes. Opera is a merging of music and theater, yet Caraher asserts that because story and words are the original sources for writing the music, "the theater side becomes more important." Therefore, he hires singers who have good acting skills and he hires stage directors who understand why a composer made particular musical choices. Opera is written to be experienced live.

There's an equally open and nurturing relationship among players in the pit, chorus members, the leads and the people who deliver the supporting production elements, including designers, stagehands and wardrobe. Sets and costumes are rented from larger companies that can afford to build them, but for two performances these elements are seamlessly integrated into the vision of what's happening at Clowes.

Caraher points out that while IO doesn't maintain a resident company, we do see and hear the same singers from season to season. The audience appreciates that. They feel it's like visiting with old friends and sharing their successes.

It's a comfort level Caraher also values for ease and speed of production. Singers come to Indianapolis only two weeks before opening. While they already know the music, set and lighting design, costumes and stage directions are new and the cast may be a mix of singers who have and have not worked together before.

"When I've developed a relationship with a singer it's easy to pick up where we left off, whether it's for a different role or in a work we're bringing back four or five years later. Of course, we are looking at it differently because we've all grown in the interim. We're always finding the greatest nuances of the composer's intent.

"I've known Robert Orth for 25 years, John Davies even longer - 30 years; Arthur Woodley, 15 years; Curt Peterson, six or eight years; and they have worked with each other. When you trust someone you don't need a lot of discussion." They easily supplied the comedic high points of Barber Oct. 8 and 10.

This system also makes it easy for young singers and directors in their IO debut. "They learn teamwork pays off better than being stars," Caraher asserts. "It's about having ideas and flexibility to bend a little. In the heat of the moment you can go with the momentum, when the energy and excitement is as close to real life as you can get. It's what makes it fun."

Going beyond the expected is what happened recently with The Barber of Seville. The audience had to pay attention visually to the overture. Usually all you do is listen, so some people use it as a time to read the program. It was a learning curve for everyone. For those who didn't attend, a word about stage director Vera L. Calábria's decision to set Barber in the framework of the familiar Kiss Me Kate. The audience was witnessing a play-within-a-play as an acting company's "off-stage" relationships took place in the midst of them performing roles "on stage."

"Opera is not safe," Caraher asserts. "When you know the singers are taking chances, you can feel the audience caring about these people on stage. You recognize they are saying something. They are making a statement. They are making more than pretty sounds."

Nobody sleeps during an IO production. Too much is going on. "It's the last bastion of unamplified sound. When you hear someone who can fill Clowes, you pay attention."

Who: Indianapolis Opera Madame Butterfly

When: Friday, Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. & Sunday, Nov. 21 at 2 p.m.

Where: Clowes Memorial Hall

Tickets: $26.50 to $86.50

Available: Clowes Memorial Hall box office, downtown at TicketCentral in the Artsgarden, at all Ticketmaster ticket centers or charge by phone at 317-239-1000 More info: Indyopera.org or 283-3470. Preludes: Opera-goers enjoy early-bird parking, cocktails, dinner or brunch and a conversation about the opera performance they are about to experience. Cost: $50 Friday night and $45 for the Sunday matinee. Call 317-283-3531.

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