Make Your Garden Grow

If you’re like me, you’re growing pretty weary of hearing bad news. The world seems to be spinning out of control, and most analyses of the current arts climate seem to be dire. All year I had been looking forward to what would be my most fruitful opportunity this summer. It would have been a rewarding role with a lovely company. But just like a plant losing its battle against frostbite, the gig withered away and died when they announced they’d be canceling their entire season. Instead of constantly mourning the seeds that aren’t taking root, I’m taking this opportunity to praise and nurture those who are currently blossoming.

Last month I had the extraordinary pleasure of performing with an innovative company called On Site Opera. Known for his brilliant site-specific productions, artistic director Eric Einhorn had a stroke of genius when he decided to stage Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera in an actual garden. He and Kelley Rourke pared down the lengthy show to a taut 90 minutes, translated the text into English and replaced recitatives with witty dialogue.

So many aspects of our outdoor performances thrilled me, but perhaps the most wonderful result was the remarkably diverse audience. We performed in a special pocket of Manhattan’s Upper West Side in a park nestled between low-income apartments and luxury condominiums. A kaleidoscope of fascinated listeners and spectators wandered through the garden as we rehearsed and performed each day. We saw baby strollers, walking canes and everything in between.

My favorite new opera fan was a nine-year-old named Arianna. During our first outdoor rehearsal she opened her bedroom window and heard our voices wafting from across the street, and immediately she and her friend Iyanna ran to the garden to experience the show; both girls were completely rapt throughout the opera, and they weren’t shy about greeting each of us and telling us what they liked about the show. Kids don’t like everything, of course. When Sandrina and Belfiore kissed, of course we could hear loud exclamations of “ew!” coming from the audience.

Arianna enthusiastically returned to the garden five nights in a row, bringing different family members and friends each time. She proudly proclaimed that she hopes to audition for any children’s roles in our upcoming productions. In that garden we planted musical seeds in the hearts of each child who attended. Who knows how they might develop with a healthy dose of water and sunlight? Arianna could one day become a major stage director, a music educator, a soprano or a general director of an opera company. I wasn’t lucky enough to see my first opera until I was twenty-one. But she already enjoyed her first taste of this special art form, and she can feed that passion in all sorts of ways as she continues to learn and grow into adulthood.

“Outreach” is a magic word in the world of opera. Before reaching out, we should reach IN to ask ourselves a few questions:

1. WHY do we sing?
-Is it for glamor, riches and fame?
If so, most of us will eventually be disappointed. Case in point: Instead of lounging in a cushy dressing room between scenes, our On Site Opera team braved the outdoor elements (with temperatures ranging from 50 to 90 degrees). But it was worthwhile, because we gave our audience the immediacy and excitement of a production that would never be the same in a traditional opera house setting.

2. How can we find new ways to bring opera to new audiences?
-Efforts to get butts in the opera seats are always important, but what about finding new patrons and taking the music to them first?
-Our performances in Manhattan were all FREE of charge. People weren’t enticed by fancy ad campaigns. They simply heard what we were doing and were immediately drawn to the glorious voices and the bubbling energy of the characters.
-I’m an advocate for engaged social media activity, but tweeting and posting on Facebook never could have attracted children and families the way we did simply by showing up and singing our hearts out in their neighborhood.

3. Do we need to transform the art, or should we transform ourselves?
-On Site Opera did not dumb down Mozart’s music. We were decidedly working within a “legit” musical style, but we found fresh ways of presenting traditional stories.
-My specialty has been twenty-first century music, and I’ve occasionally felt like standard repertoire isn’t as interesting as new music. Our Secret Gardener production reminded me that Mozart’s score didn’t need to change; my perception did. I had been placing limits on my own performance because of my biased notions of eighteenth century music. The experience reminded me to approach each singing opportunity with the excitement, energy and creativity of a world premiere.

The garden of opera isn’t dying, but it is changing. Old methods for growth are no longer working, so it’s time to try a different seed or look for another type of soil. We need to nurture new seedlings while maintaining the plants we’ve grown to love. On Site Opera has inspired me to be an artistic evangelist; I’m compelled to find innovative ways to share art with a broader audience. Our time in the West Side Community Garden proved that classical singing isn’t only for the elites. “If we sing it, they will come.”

Jonathan Blalock

Jonathan Blalock recently earned critical acclaim as Prince Claus in Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus with the Dallas Opera. A specialist in 21st century music, Rossini, and Mozart, Blalock has performed with companies and symphonies including Washington National Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Pacific Symphony, the Opera Orchestra of New York, the PROTOTYPE Festival, Opera Hong Kong, the Santa Fe Opera, West Edge Opera, and many more.