WNO's 'Opera in the Outfield' event is a family-friendly day with Verdi

Half-smokes and beer at the opera? If it sounds too good to be true, it isn't: Opera in the Outfield combines the vocal artistry of Verdi's "A Masked Ball" (Un Ballo in Maschera) with the atmospherics (and concession stands) of Major League Baseball.
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010

"Play Ballo!" was the motto of the Washington National Opera on Sunday. On a blazing afternoon, 11,000 people, toting picnic blankets and sunscreen took over Nationals Stadium for the third annual Opera in the Outfield event, a live simulcast on the Jumbotron screen of Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera," broadcast from the Kennedy Center.

A stadium is a natural setting for opera. (The Roman amphitheater in Verona, after all, is one of the most popular destinations for opera-loving travelers in Europe.) And opera is a kind of sporting event. On Sunday, all that was missing from the giant state-of-the-art screen, where supertitles explicated the Italian text, were the levels of information you normally get at a baseball game. Players' stats, information ("This is an alternative to the more familiar cadenza"), even a play-by-play: All this would be perfectly in keeping with the original flavor of 19th-century Italian opera houses, where audiences behaved a lot more like sports fans -- and vendors hawked edibles in the aisles -- than today's more staid audiences, who come to opera expecting high art.

The high-art expectations seemed to infect the stadium to some extent. One of the great attractions of Opera in the Outfield, from the point of view of the opera house, is the family-friendliness of the event. "There are so few things we can take the kids to that we also like to do," said Greg Knott, who was there with Violet (6) and Hazel (4), and his friend Dan Kahl with Marin (3) and Ella (7). On Sunday, the costume department set up a couple of tables with hats and outfits for kids to try on; there was an arts and crafts area where people could make their own masks for the ball; and during the performance kids ran across the green field, throwing Frisbees or holding towels aloft that streamed behind them like capes. But Knott, who has attended all three Opera in the Outfield performances, said that this year his children had been told to stop running around: People wanted to concentrate on the music. This is certainly not the message the opera company intended to get across.

The event is conceived as a gift to the community. Though the budget is around $350,000, says Jo LaBrecque-French, the WNO's director of marketing and communications, it doesn't cost the company anything: It is wholly funded by Target, Rolex, the Mars Corp., and a host of smaller supporters including the Lerner family, who make the ballpark available to the opera for free. Certainly it could be a way to target new audiences; about 18,000 people pre-registered for the event on the company's Web site, and the marketing department will be sure to follow up with these potential ticket-buyers, offering a special deal on the coming ceremony for the NEA Opera Honors on Oct. 22.

The San Francisco Opera, the only other major company to offer live broadcasts at the ballpark (its "Aida" will play AT&T Park on Friday), recently said it brought in $880,000 worth of new ticket sales by following up with ballpark attendees -- more than covering the $800,000 it cost the company to put the simulcasts on. The WNO is making no such claims. "We don't view this as a profit-maker," says the company's treasurer, Hank Gutman, attending the simulcast for the first time and professing himself "overwhelmed" with the turnout. "It's about awareness, but more about sharing."

On Sunday, though, the beauty of the afternoon siphoned off some of the prospective new audience; last year's event drew about 19,000 people as compared to this year's 11,000. The last two Opera in the Outfield presentations were held on the opening night of the season, and some attendees said they preferred the nighttime atmosphere. "It's cooler," observed Samantha Koretsky, 10, who was back for a second time. (Her sister Victoria, 6, came armed with reading material for when Act 2 grew long.) Samantha likes music but isn't sure she wants to go to a performance in the opera house itself. "I have trouble understanding the words," she said.,

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