The 40-some people who gathered in a side room before Anchorage Opera's production of "Don Pasquale" on Wednesday night were not the usual tux-and-tails crowd. They were "Opera Tolerators," people attending a full opera for the first time in their lives.
"There've been a lot of firsts this year," said Mark Arena, who works in the military personnel division on Fort Richardson. In the past few months, he and his companion, Martina Philip, have caught "Hairspray," the Moscow Circus and the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin.
"I've enjoyed them all so far," he said.
Elmendorf energy resource manager Francis Sheridan and his wife, Barbara, were also seeking to expand their horizons.
"The kids have moved out," he said. "So we've been able to catch some classical concerts, Riders in the Sky and the Wailin' Jennies."
The "Opera Tolerators" gimmick sprang from classical music radio station KLEF's general manager Rick Goodfellow. The package included a discounted $25 ticket, finger food, champagne and a pre-curtain primer conducted by Anchorage Opera's general manager, Torrie Allen.
"I have long been fascinated by the difficulties of marketing performing arts," Goodfellow told the group. Opera, particularly, "carries a lot of baggage."
"Opera is easy to ridicule, and popular culture often does so," he said. But that's only part of the problem.
The bigger hurdle is that "many folks who imagine they are opera's best friends are such off-putting opera snobs that they make it seem very unappealing to those on the outside."
Allen agreed, noting that opera was once as big a popular pull as movies or professional wrestling.
"Sometime in the 1920s, it was hijacked by a cultural elite," he said in the course of a wide-ranging PowerPoint discussion of the art in general and "Don Pasquale" in particular.
Goodfellow originally tried out the "Opera Tolerators" idea on members of his Rotary Club.
"I discovered there was magic in the name," he told the Daily News. "When invited to come as part of a group of friends under a tongue-in-cheek banner like 'Tolerators,' there was much more interest than I'd ever have imagined."
So he offered to promote the concept for Allen's company on his station, which is where most of the Tolerators heard about it.
While some of the 40 admitted that they had attended an opera a long time ago, most interviewed said it was the first time they'd seen one in Anchorage.
WILL THEY RETURN?
The current production, which continues tonight and Sunday, was a pretty good vehicle with which to lose one's operatic virginity. The farcical romantic comedy was presented by a cast of attractive, animated actors who kept the audience laughing.
English translations of the Italian text projected above the stage helped convey the jokes. The cinematic 1950s set and costumes gave the show a strong contemporary resonance.
The orchestra was excellent. The musical timing and stage action never dragged. The voices, while small, were acrobatic, accurate and beautiful.
"Don Pasquale" is neither profound music nor theater, but Anchorage Opera has come as close as possible to making it brilliant.
Francis Sheridan, for one, called it "wonderful. I laughed a lot."
"Seeing the words in English really added to the enjoyment of it for me," said Barbara Sheridan.
Arena and Philips were also smiling as they left their balcony seats.
"Would I go to another opera? I believe I will," said Philips.
So will propeller mechanic Fred Phelps, brought to his first opera by his friend Kathryn Merrill.
"He has a sweetheart in the Lower 48," Merrill explained. "And they're in love. And she likes classical music. So I'm going to play musical cupid here and help with his musical education."
Phelps relished the lesson.
"It's so vibrant, so alive," he said. "I'm beginning to realize you have to come twice. The first time just to get the whole thing, the second time to absorb it."
Listening to the chatter and chuckling of the departing crowd after the show, Goodfellow seemed satisfied with the results of his plan. But he was also philosophical when it was pointed out to him that at least two of the tolerators had left before the end.
"Opera is not for everybody," he said.
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.