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Orchestra and Balcony

[whitespace] The Bravo! Club
Drop Bed Gorgeous: The Bravo! Club, known for attracting beautiful singles, hired Look Model Agency models to walk through the crowd or pose on the bed at the club's opera season kickoff party at Neiman Marcus. Facing a Social Security-size deficit, the San Francisco Opera reaches out to the younger affluent in order to help subsidize its populist intentions

By Michael Stabile

Beyond the vip side entrance, the requisite red carpet and the proverbial velvet rope lies a Neiman Marcus elevator manned by a would-be model wearing a ribbed Calvin Klein T-shirt in ever-chic black. Shrouded in the surprisingly precocious darkness of early autumn, the store resembles the set of a high-end version of the toy-store horror film Child's Play, with eerily dim lights and possible danger lurking behind the Kiehl's counter.

A DJ mixes innocuous electronica with Club Alice 97.3 style, alternating between Madonna and the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and looking smug and slightly German in a--surprise!--white, ribbed Calvin Klein T-shirt. Chinese lanterns sway jadedly from the ceiling like the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg as the coutured saunter from room to room. At more than $30 a ticket, the kickoff party for the San Francisco Opera Bravo! Club's 1998/99 season attracts the city's young and moneyed like a well-heeled rave.

The San Francisco Opera, like most other American opera companies of its size and stature, long ago realized that its core audience and sustaining patrons were rapidly aging--and thus its main sources of funding was, pardon the expression, dying off. "People have talked about it [for years] but didn't know how to go about [attracting a younger crowd]," says Tom Gulick, director of marketing and public relations. The Bravo! Club, a collection of 20- and 30-year-old socialites and MBAs, is only a part of the strategy the San Francisco Opera has employed in this effort, but it is a nonetheless crucial part, since its members represent a new generation of endowments and charitable contributions.

"We realize," Gulick concedes, "that the subscriber/donor is always going to be around 50 years [old], but someone at that point doesn't [just] walk into the concert hall. If they haven't been coming in their 20s and 30s, and they don't have some knowledge and positive experience in operas, it's highly unlikely that later they're simply going to walk into the opera house." Or, just as crucial to this year's $52 million budget, hand over a check.

The Bravo! Club, which began about a decade ago as the inspiration of several young opera patrons, now boasts around 600 members, many of whom donate additional thousands of dollars on top of shelling out for tickets that can reach as high as $500 for priority seating. This year's theme, "Dance With Desire," celebrates the much-lauded commission of A Streetcar Named Desire by the San Francisco Opera.

Leaning against "backstage" decor littered with rehearsal photos and drinking one of the clever martinis (a minibottle of Absolut topped with an olive) served at the party, patron Todd Anderson characterizes the organization as consisting of "mostly socialites and businessmen--no nouveau wealth." Silicon Valley is barely represented in the Bravo! Club, except, perhaps, in members' investment portfolios. "They're more interested in Sharks games than opera," Todd says.

Todd joined the Bravo! Club on the advice of a friend, a member of the politically oriented Commonwealth Club who told him that "60 percent [of the women in the club] are drop-dead gorgeous." Although his statistic may be inflated by the presence of the Look Model Agency models hired to walk through the crowd or pose on the bed in the center of the room, there is a surprising number of singles at the party. Sipping chardonnay alone, a scarved woman in her late 20s named Tracy echoes Todd's sentiment. "It's a great place to meet people who like opera," she says, as she scans the room. The same might be said for the Castro, but meeting someone at Bravo! Club at least serves as the crude equivalent of a credit check.

The Bravo! Club Lookin' for Love: Some guests say that a Bravo! Club party is a great place to meet other socialites who like opera.

The world premiere of Streetcar is the showpiece around which this year's opera season is built, and it was chosen in part for its ability to attract younger audiences. Since the Bravo! Club may be less than accessible for most young San Franciscans, the opera is also using more pedestrian methods to reach the masses. This summer, for example, bus shelters advertised the Femme Fatale Festival, with a reduced price subscription to three off-season operas: Lulu, L'Incoranazione di Poppea and Carmen. By using television, radio and alternative media like bookmarks and billboards, the opera hopes to make the experience less mystifying and intimidating.

General director Lofti Mansouri, whom Gulick describes as "an unabashed populist," spearheaded the youth initiative three years ago with the summer production of La Bohème. Targeting youth with the theme "young bohemians in love," the opera sold more than 40,000 thousand tickets, 65 percent of which were purchased by first-time opera-goers whose average age hovered in the mid-30s. La Bohème was followed the following year with Madama Butterfly (playing again this year) with similar results. Despite the organization's wariness of pushing a new, possibly too-experimental work on an untutored audience, the opera hopes to achieve the same amount of success this year with Streetcar.

"What we're aiming for here," Gulick says, "is to take on American works that are popular icons, that are synonymous with American society themes ... and adapt them into operas." In addition to the dozen or so different operas performed each season, the San Francisco Opera has begun commissioning one new opera each year. An opera based on the book Dead Man Walking is slated for next season; another, featuring a collaboration between the seemingly disparate talents of Bobby McFerrin and Tony Kushner, is in the planning stages. Back at the Bravo! Club, however, Todd Anderson has a slightly more inventive suggestion. "I think A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy would make a great opera," he muses, citing its universal themes and progressive energy. "It's modern-day Shakespeare." Perhaps it would even draw that nouveau-Silicon Valley money away from their precious hockey games.

Turandot, Sept. 11-Dec. 12; Arabella, Sept. 12- Oct. 4; A Streetcar Named Desire, Sept. 19- Oct. 11; Tristan und Isolde, Oct. 10-Nov. 6; Manon, Oct. 15-Nov. 1; Don Carlo, Oct. 24-Nov. 14; Norma, Nov. 7-Nov. 28; Peter Grimes, Nov. 17-Dec. 13; Betrothal in a Monastery, Nov. 23-Dec. 10; Madama Butterfly, Jan. 9-17. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave. $22-$145. 415/864-3330 or www.sfopera.com for more information.

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From the October 5-18, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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