Opera Lady's enthusiasm takes the snobbery out of a vibrant art form
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The Pittsburgh Opera's Opera Lady.
"Hi! I'm Beth Parker, the Opera Lady, and I'm here to make opera easy for you."
With these words, the Pittsburgh Opera introduces a new initiative this season aimed at making opera accessible. Parker, a former vocal coach and music professor, will work to interact with patrons and answer questions at concerts, on the Internet and by phone.
"We were thinking about ways to reach a bigger audience with what we are doing," says Parker, 50. "There are so many stereotypes and misconceptions about opera that keep people from coming. You don't have to be rich, a snob, speak Italian, French and German."
Her answers and advice are common sense but with a little flair. Her response to the question of what should someone wear to an opera is, "Whatever you want, but please wear something!"
Beth Parker, the Opera Lady's alter-ego.
Click photo for larger image.
On the Pittsburgh Opera Web site, Parker is caricatured with pointy hair, brightly colored eyeglasses and an exuberant smile. Turns out, that's what she is like in real life.
"We purposely didn't give me a big hat or hoop skirt," she says. "It really is me. My hair is spiky."
"She is not a mascot," adds Laura Willumsen, director of marketing and public relations. "She is a real person."
Indeed, Parker has an extensive and varied background in opera. She enrolled at the University of Indiana at Bloomington studying musicology, but her interest in opera was pulling her in that direction.
"I kept getting hired to do wonderful things, such as working at the Brevard Music Festival," says Parker, who also apprenticed at San Francisco Opera then. "I was getting such great opera jobs, but I was getting criticized for not spending enough time in the library." Finally she had to admit that "my heart was always in the opera house," and she switched her major to piano, along with fine arts. She become a vocal coach and piano accompanist.
Eventually, in the late '80s, Parker climbed the ladder to accompany the great tenor Franco Corelli in music lessons and mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne in master classes in New York City.
She was briefly hired by the Metropolitan Opera, but for family reasons Parker left to re-enter academia, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. For 11 years, she taught music theory, music history and ran the opera workshop.
After completing an Opera America fellowship in artistic administration in 2002, Parker was hired by Knoxville Opera, and then by the Pittsburgh Opera, which used her in a variety of roles before this new role.
Though spokespeople or mascots usually are born in marketing think tanks or focus groups, the concept for Opera Lady came out of the shared experience of the Pittsburgh Opera's staff. Many noticed that when they discuss opera with people one-on-one, the listeners get interested to a greater degree than with their mass marketing.
"The challenge is how to reach a larger audience [with it]," says Parker. "People need a personal invitation to come, [and] you'd be surprised about how hungry people are for information."
It doesn't hurt that Parker is in love with the art form. Her devotion spills out over the phone as she talks about her new post.
"I am enthusiastic about opera the way that others are crazed about the Steelers."
So, what is the most common question asked of the Opera Lady so far?
"The number one question is, 'How will I understand what is happening?' " she says. "When I tell them that you can read the words in English [on the supertitle screen above the stage], they are just blown away."
First Published September 27, 2006 12:00 am