3 Questions for Keith from Harlan Crow

by Suzanne Calvin

In our continuing series, interesting people from the North Texas community are invited to pose three opera-related questions for Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny. The latest to take us up on the offer is Mr. Harlan Crow of Crow Holdings:

1. It is my understanding that the opera normally starts at 8:00 p.m. That is a difficult time for many people, particularly people that would like to introduce their families to the opera. Why can’t some presentations start earlier, resulting in an earlier opera evening?

The question of when to begin operas is an important one, and is often the subject of extensive market research. At The Dallas Opera, we typically begin our performances at 7:30 p.m., so that we can have everyone out of the theater well before 11:00 p.m. even for a moderately long opera. Some classic operas, such as Richard Strauss’s Salome, are relatively short (under two hours), and some contemporary operas are also around that length (such as Moby-Dick). With a start time of 7:30 p.m., the whole evening then finishes before 10:00 p.m. For our recent production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, we began the evening performances at 7:00 p.m., which allowed people to get home at a more reasonable hour than if we held rigidly to our usual start time. At the recent performance I attended of Wagner’s Siegfried at the Met, the mid-week performance began at 6:00 p.m. One challenge with tinkering with start times is that it always creates a certain amount of patron confusion, as they try to sort through which performances start at an unusual time.

Lyric Opera of Chicago, well-known for its devoted subscriber base and marketing prowess, offers some Wednesday and Thursday matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. These mid-week matinees have proven very popular with commuters, as they can attend an opera during the week without having to make a special trip on the weekend from the suburbs. As The Dallas Opera begins to grow its number of performances and productions in the future, we may also test such an idea.

2. At the risk of heresy to purists, why can’t an operatic presentation be abbreviated? A good solid 1-1/2 hour show would create a rewarding experience without such a lengthy commitment to an evening.

Relative to the symphonic world, opera faces two programming challenges. The first is that with rare exceptions, one opera is presented in an evening (excluding such standards as the double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci or Puccini’s Il Trittico, which includes 3 one-act operas in an evening). In the symphonic world, most – but not all – programs include several different works, which lowers the perceived risk of patrons in attending. They know that if the first piece is not to their liking, they will get to hear something else in the same evening. The second challenge is that many wonderful operas are very long for today’s audiences. As a result, they are already cut quite considerably. This is particularly true for such famous Mozart operas as Così fan Tutte or The Marriage of Figaro, but many other operas are cut. (For example, we made careful cuts in last year’s presentation of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena). With the near-universal adoption of supertitles (showing the English language translation of the opera on a small screen above the stage) and increasing improvements in large-scale projection technology, one can imagine presenting key scenes of an opera and then providing detailed text describing what events took place in between. This approach would allow the audience to hear significant parts of the opera, and to maintain the dramatic thread, in a much shorter span of time. It might be difficult to cut the whole opera down to 1-1/2 hours, unless the performance was presented without intermission, but performances of 2-2.5 hours would be feasible. Such an approach would not save much on production costs, but it might be an effective way to draw new audiences. I have already held informal discussions with the General Director of another leading U.S. opera company about piloting such an approach at some point in the future. Naturally, we would need to market these abbreviated operas quite differently, to eliminate the risk of patron confusion.

3. Again, at the risk of heresy, what about an operatic “greatest hits” night? The talent, costumes and sets, of course, would be difficult but the hope of drawing a new and younger audience might be worth it.

There is nothing heretical about an operatic “greatest hits” evening, and it is an idea that we would like to consider for TDO at some point. Evenings of operatic excerpts, especially famous opera choruses, regularly sell out in London, and some opera companies in the U.S. have had great success with gala-type events featuring famous singers in several extended excerpts over the course of an evening. These events also typically include sets and costumes. While the costs can be relatively high due to the need to include singers, sets, costumes and stage directors, they can make a significant “splash” and generate a lot of community interest.


Harlan Crow

Harlan Crow is the chairman and chief executive officer of Crow Family Holdings, a private family-business established to exclusively manage the capital of the Trammell Crow family. He assumed overall responsibilities for the family operations in 1988 after serving in other management positions. During Mr. Crow’s tenure as CEO, the firm has continued to grow and strengthen its position as a leader in the real estate investment business. The firm has also made important strategic diversifications into a whole variety of additional asset classes. Mr. Crow is a director on several boards including the American Enterprise Institute, the Southwestern Medical Foundation, the Supreme Court Historical Society Board and the Antiquarian Society. He also serves as honorary counsel of Denmark for the Southwest region.

(Photo courtesy of Crow Holdings)

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