Coloring the Opera Browse the operatic canon, and you'll find the black experience in America doesn't exactly stand out. The typical opera audience isn't bursting with color either. The New York City Opera is trying to change that.

Coloring the Opera

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Browse the operatic canon, and you'll find the black experience in America doesn't exactly stand out. In fact, you'll find black life front and center in only a handful of operas, including Scott Joplin's "Treemonisha" and "Amistad." The typical opera audience isn't bursting with color either. The New York City Opera is trying to change that. It has launched a campaign to market opera to black audiences, and it starts with who and what's on stage.

With me now is Jane M. Gullong, the director of the New York City Opera, and Donna Walker-Kuhne, an arts marketing specialist and president of Walker International Communications.

Welcome to both of you.

Ms. DONNA WALKER-KUHNE (Arts Marketing Specialist; President, Walker International Communications Group): Thank you.

Ms. JANE M. GULLONG (Executive Director, New York City Opera): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So Jane, the New York City Opera production of "Margaret Garner" premieres tonight. Tell us a little bit about this opera and how it came to your venue.

Ms. GULLONG: Well, the New York City Opera has a program called Vox, which showcases new American work. And in 2004, we saw this piece, which is - with music that's written by Richard Danielpour and the libretto was written by Toni Morrison, and it's based on the same material as her novel "Beloved." And we saw a section of it in this program and we're very excited about it.

The opera has had another production also, and several of us have had the opportunity to see it produced in Detroit. And we thought that it deserved a second production and a different creative team and a new look, so we wanted to bring it to New York. And it's rare for a new American work to get a second production, and we're very proud to be doing it.

CHIDEYA: So the fact that Toni Morrison is credited for the libretto, does that automatically make black folks want to see something like this?

Ms. GULLONG: I think that's hard to say. There are a number of reasons we hope that black folks and all folks will want to see this. Toni Morrison is certainly one of them. She's an international name. But also there are a lot of people who are interested in new opera. And this is an event, so I think there's more than one reason. Also the cast, we're very excited about the cast and it's - there's an African-American chorus and a white chorus and that's going to be an unusual look on our stage and, you know, we think that will be part of making people want to see us and - but the work itself is going to be the main draw.

CHIDEYA: Donna, let's move on to the marketing. What kind of unusual things have you done to try to get this into the black community in terms of awareness and audience turnout?

Ms. WALKER-KUHNE: Thank you, Farai. It's nice to speak with you.

I think what's been really great working on this production is the support that City Opera has provided for the campaign. It wasn't a question of, oh, can you try to get in the black audience, but they actually provided us with tools and a budget and that is the substantial difference.

So the first thing we did was we had a launch event at the Apollo Theater. They were already scheduled to do a presentation there and we used that opportunity to invite some of our cultural tastemakers and key group leaders who could begin creating the buzz. And from that launching point, there was an energy that kind of started to stir around in the black community. And we followed it up by making a lot of presentations and various events throughout the community, participating in Harlem week, Dance Theater of Harlem Street Fair, black expo - places where there are gatherings of African-Americans. We presented at the Baptist Ministers Conference. And this was followed by a very solid advertising campaign utilizing the black media in print, in radio, direct mail and Internet. So it's really a holistic effort that's been quite impactful, I believe.

CHIDEYA: And, Jane, is this the first time that you've done this kind of outreach?

Ms. GULLONG: Well, we have another outreach program called Opera For All. And, you know, we think of all the things that might be barriers to keep people from coming to Lincoln Center or coming to City Opera and one of them might be price. And so our Opera For All program is designed to reach as many people as we can and to do it by making every seat in the house available for $25.

And so we've actually opened our season with a kind of a preview period in which we've done Opera For All. And that's just finished. And we're always excited to see that if the price is $25, we're able to sell out the house. And so we've just had 10,000 people here at $25, many of them coming for the first time.

CHIDEYA: Donna, how important is it to you and maybe you have stories about people for this production or other productions that you've worked on who were surprised when they come and they experience something new for the first time?

Ms. WALKER-KUHNE: You know, there's such a wonderful sense of curiosity I find in the black community that really want to explore the arts in many different facets. So when we first started talking about "Margaret Garner," as soon as we associated with "Beloved," there was this moment of recognition and, you know, they say, wow. Okay, we know that story and where is it? City Opera? Wow, that's different. And who's in it?

So it was - there was a curiosity that surrounded it that was very positive from the beginning. Certainly, Toni Morrison's name has been very, very beneficial to that, and the fact that it's been my company that's been reaching out to this constituents where we have a relationship, I think they kind of trust the fact that we wouldn't come to them with something that wouldn't continue with excellence in art product.

CHIDEYA: And very quickly, why is this even important to you?

Ms. GULLONG: Well, I'll answer it. Certainly, it's really important to City Opera because we were founded about 60 years ago by the then-mayor of the city, and he called us the people's opera. And, you know, to us that means all of the people and that it's important that we see all the people here in our house.

CHIDEYA: Well, Jane and Donna, thank you so much.

Ms. WALKER-KUHNE: Thank you.

Ms. GULLONG: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Jane M. Gullong is the director of the New York City Opera and Donna Walker-Kuhne is an arts marketing specialist and president of Walker International Communications. She also wrote the book, "Invitation to the Party: Building Bridges to the Arts, Culture and Community." She joined me from NPR's bureau in New York.

And the New York City Opera's production of "Margaret Garner" premieres at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center tonight.

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