The opera is trying to reach a younger audience, which could help the art form thrive for many years to come.
On any given winter night, the Sarasota Opera House is packed with patrons clad in their best furs and suits.
But if you look closely around 30 minutes before the show, you’ll see some sneakers and jeans standing out in the crowd.
These outliers are students taking advantage of discounted Sarasota Opera tickets, one of many examples of how the opera is working to change the age range of its audience.
It all started with the Culture Collective, the young patrons group for the arts in Sarasota that is now run by the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County. Sam Lowry, the opera’s director of audience development, helped relaunch the Culture Collective program in 2013 to get young people tuned into the arts scene. The result was a subscription program giving young adults a discount on several local performances and exhibits throughout the year.
Last year, Lowry utilized this same strategy to start the Da Capo Society, a young patrons group for the Sarasota Opera open to residents aged 21-45. For a $99 subscription and a $75 donation, members get to attend three operas a year, network with other young professionals and get to know older opera patrons.
For Lowry, expanding the opera’s reach to a younger crowd is both his job and a personal passion project.
“We’re dealing with a generation of young people who have had little to no exposure to the opera at all,” he says. “We want them to be part of that global community that assembles here season after season, expanding their own knowledge of the world through this art form.”
Lowry, a singer himself, says it wasn’t long ago that the art form was so popular, famous opera singers could be seen on late night talk shows. He wants to help young people realize why opera has maintained its popularity among older generations.
To entice them, the Da Capo Society offers casual get-togethers before or after each performance in which young people who share an appreciation for the arts (and/or want to learn more about opera) can interact. Instead of planning a formal social event, he contacts the members, sees who’s planning on going to each performance, and plans meet-ups at nearby locales like Classico.
Members also get special donor privileges such as invites to donor events, free tickets exchanges and flexibility with performance dates. If they want to see more than the three operas that are included (they choose which three of the five season productions to attend), they can add a fourth for $33. If a friend wants to come with them, it’s $33 as well.
Lowry picks one performance a season to host a private VIP reception, along with a backstage tour, before the show to give a rare insider’s experience.
“We can allow people to get much more hands on,” he says. “They’re able really to start to build that emotional relationship with the art form to a greater degree than the bigger organizations that maintain a barrier between the art and the public.”
Along with the Da Capo Society, Sarasota Opera also offers a student/teacher rush ticket discount. If a local student or instructor shows up with valid ID 30 minutes before curtain, for $10 cash they can get tickets to that evening’s show (provided there’s availability for that night).
Opera is complex in that it involves so many aspects, Lowry says. Dance, singing, a foreign language, acting, visual design, costume design — it’s a lot to ask of a modern audience, especially one that has become spoiled with entertainment at its fingertips.
“You can’t comprehend it at the surface level. It takes reading about it, exposing yourself to it,” he says. “It does take work from the public to comprehend it and once they do, they love it, but I think that’s a barrier to entry for some people.”
The goal of Sarasota Opera, Lowry says, is to break down those barriers if the opera wants the art form to thrive. That can begin with helping the next generation of opera patrons learn the history of and gain an appreciation for the art form.
“We want to pull back that curtain of intimidation and start to explain all the ins and outs of the art form and how massively complicated it is to execute these beautiful performances, with hope that they have a better appreciation for all the intricacies that go into doing what they do.”
To join, email [email protected] or call 328-1322.