Cincinnati Opera is going mobile

The Cincinnati Opera, the second oldest opera company in the U.S., is going mobile.

Founded in 1920, the organization has embarked on a new and innovative project called the Opera Express, thanks to a $50,000 Revolutionary Grant through OPERA America’s Building Opera Audiences grant program.
Cincinnati Opera was selected as one of only two opera companies in the country to receive the grant, which will be used specifically for building the Opera Express, set for launch in the spring of 2015.
The Opera Express will be a mobile opera theater housed inside a converted semi-trailer. The grant money will be used to convert the trailer into a stylish, comfortable performance space for groups of 16 to 20 audience members. Performances will range from 10 to 15 minutes and will feature professional singers, lighting, costumes and scenery.
“I believe that in every opera, there is at least one magic moment, similar to being at the top of a rollercoaster right before it plunges downward,” says Chris Milligan, managing director of the Cincinnati Opera. “Our belief is that if we can get more people to experience that magic moment of going to an opera, we’ll have more people excited to come back again and again.”
Setting the stage

Milligan hopes to take Opera Express to all sorts of locations in and around the city of Cincinnati, like Taste of Cincinnati, Rookwood Commons or even a church parking lot. The crew will set up for two to three hours at a time and conduct a series of short performances for small groups.
“Nearly every opera group in the country has some sort of outreach program, which usually involves bringing a reduced version of the opera to a library, school, church, park or somewhere similar,” Milligan says. “But in each case, the experience is somehow necessarily less than what it is in a proper theatre. We concluded that we wanted to have more control over the theatrical experience. The Opera Express will give us that and will also create a sort of mystique for everyone outside who wonders what’s happening on the inside.”
In addition, because of the ability to essentially show up anytime, anywhere, Milligan anticipates being able to cater the experience to different demographics based on their location.
“If we knew we were going to be in a suburban location, we might do 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday and do a short children’s opera,” he says. “If we want young professionals, we might be in Over-the-Rhine on Vine street for a run that’s 9 p.m. to midnight. What's great about this is the that we can bring theatre to different locations and the programming can adjust for the specific clientele."
Milligan cites both the growing food truck culture in Cincinnati and Cirque de Soleil as reference points for the Opera Express.
“Cirque de Soleil tours with their own venue entirely," he says. "They bring the seats, gift shop, restrooms—they put everything on a truck and control everything."
Paving a Path

"As cultural and entertainment options continue to grow, opera companies face increased competition for audiences," says Marc A. Scorca, president/CEO of OPERA America, the field's national nonprofit service organization, which supports the creation, presentation and enjoyment of opera. "The Building Opera Audiences grant program provides funding to experiment with innovative projects that help engage new and retain current audiences, ensuring that opera and opera companies continue to flourish."
In its second year, the Building Opera Audiences program selected five other opera companies to receive Innovation Grants: Arizona Opera (Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.), Central City Opera (Denver), Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Philadelphia and Palm Beach Opera. The grant recipients were selected by a panel of industry leaders from a wide spectrum of notable music and arts organizations.
“I think it was quite clever that some of the people that sat on the panel were outside the opera realm specifically,” Milligan says. “Several had more of a theatrical background, and I think that was an interesting approach.”
Each funded project will be documented and evaluated throughout its lifespan. The results will be shared with the opera field, so that other organizations can learn from and replicate projects in their communities.
"We are thrilled to receive a Revolutionary Grant from OPERA America," says Patricia K. Beggs, general director and CEO of Cincinnati Opera. "We have always believed that the greatest hurdle to creating new opera fans is simply getting them in the theater for a true opera experience. With the Opera Express, we will deliver that experience to them, wherever they are."
Milligan agrees. “Our idea is to surprise people with unexpected cultural experiences,” he says. “Think of how great it’d be to explain to someone that on your way home from work, you stopped at the grocery store and saw an opera."
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