Hoping to hit all the high notes


Opera Grand Rapids has several events planned to help audiences better understand the various components of performances. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

Hundreds of years ago, opera was the main form of entertainment for many populations across the globe.

The art form has fallen from prominence, however, as it’s one of the most difficult art forms to embrace — especially in the modern world with its many distractions, said Anne Berquist, Opera Grand Rapids’ executive director.

Berquist, who began her role in December 2013, said while crowds and funding are steady, the opera needs to adapt to the 21st century. She said Grand Rapids’ progression into the arts has made the public more accessible, but, in turn, the opera also must become more accessible.

“There’s a stereotype and perception of what opera is — and often people think about what opera is without ever attending an opera,” Berquist said.

“Opera Grand Rapids has never done this process of rethinking what is the future of opera. What is our product and how can we be part of the community and enhance the community and grow with it the same way the community is growing?”

A primary change will be made in the opera’s season. For much of Opera Grand Rapids’ 47-year history, the season has been split into three parts: fall, winter and spring. Aside from the organization’s fundraiser in October and ongoing educational series, the meat of the 2015-16 schedule will take place in spring and early summer.

Part of the reason for the change is to cater to its current audience, Berquist said, which she hopes will help create a palpable excitement in the city about the shows. The change also allows Opera Grand Rapids to better utilize funds to promote one solid season rather than three individual sections.

“We want to create an opera fever,” she said. “We’re concerned more of our current audience are snowbirds and are gone during the winter, and we need to be aware of them.”

Opera Grand Rapids went through a full system of rethinking itself, which included internal strategic planning meetings, talking to audiences, surveys and focus groups.

Berquist hopes the tighter season also will allow for a more cohesive, curated program that will allow spectators to immerse themselves in a theme, which this season will be “young love.” The schedule is anchored by a production of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” planned in part to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Some of the productions will be smaller in size and shorter in time in an effort to attract more people. The smaller productions will take the opera away from spacious DeVos Performance Hall onto smaller stages, such as St. Cecilia Music Center’s Royce Auditorium and the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Arts and Worship.

“Opera is not usually an intimate art form at all; it’s usually grandiose with music, dance, theater — you name them all,” Berquist said. “But you also have a lot of intimate experiences such as chamber operas and shorter operettas.”

She hopes the more intimate events in smaller venues will serve to educate audiences and showcase the various aspects that make up an opera.

“A few people will come to the shorter event and enjoy what it is about — voice, the story, the connection between a book written and the music written based on the book,” she said. “That’s what opera is about.”

Another highlight will be master classes in partnership with area colleges and universities. Students will have the opportunity to perform in front of internationally renowned professional guest artists who are in town for Opera GR productions and receive input from them.

This fall, Opera Grand Rapids will host the only college opera vocal competition in Michigan.

“Michigan is very keen on discovering talent and retaining young talent,” Berquist said. “That’s part of our goal: to discover that talent and give them the tools to get out there and have their own career.”

Panel discussions will help educate audiences and increase spectators’ comfort levels with opera productions.

“You feel more comfortable when you see your friends, rather than a random place with strangers,” Berquist said.

“If you know the story, you might be more equipped to go to a three-hour opera. There are all these barriers, and we want to break down those barriers.”

She cited various portions of an opera production that might intrigue audience members, including special effects, set designs, theater, dance, voice and music.

“It’s the most difficult art form to embrace, but it also gives the most possibilities because there are so many different layers,” Berquist said. “It gives us the freedom because we have so many ways to shape what opera should be in the 21st century.

“It makes people laugh. It’s what happens in life: love, drama — all the feelings.”

Berquist recognizes opera still might not be for everyone, but she feels it is Opera Grand Rapids’ duty to make the best effort it can to incorporate itself into the changing world of the arts in Grand Rapids.

“If we want to be a part of the community, we have to adapt and grow the audience,” she said. “Some people will come and fall in love with opera; some others will take time.

“Not everybody will love opera, but people should be proud to have an opera company here in Grand Rapids.”

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