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Making Opera Cool Is Easier When You Have A Castle

Soprano Kathryn Skemp, as Flora, and treble Aidan Gent, as Miles, say their prayers while an intimate moment plays out behind the scenes in the Boston Lyric Opera's production of "Turn of the Screw." (Courtesy Boston Lyric Opera)

BOSTON — New England’s largest opera company is trying something new. The Boston Lyric Opera is taking a production out of the theater and into The Castle, a historic landmark in Boston’s Back Bay. “Turn of the Screw” opens there Wednesday night.

The Park Plaza Castle was built in 1891 as an armory, but its style is medieval. It’s looming, mysterious and inspires head-scratching, according to soprano Emily Pulley. “I think everybody who walks down the street and sees this can’t help but going, hey, there’s a castle in the middle of Boston,” she said.

Now, Pulley hopes people will say, “hey, there’s an opera going on in the middle of that castle.”

She calls it a “found space,” and says the Boston Lyric Opera worked hard to transform it into a usable performance venue. They brought in bleacher-style seats, lighting rigs and a mammoth video screen that hangs above the stage.

Preview: ‘Turn Of The Screw’

Pulley plays the governess in Benjamin Britten’s 1954 adaptation of the Henry James ghost story, and says she’s a fan of The Castle’s cavernous interior. “There are a lot of echoes, and for a sort of creepy dark tale like ‘Turn of the Screw,’ I think that lends itself well,” she said.

It creates a different, heightened experience, for sure, with shadows playing out on the castle walls and an eerie video projection overhead. And that’s part of the point, according to Pulley.

This opera company is targeting the uninitiated, such as 23-year-old Meghan Murphy. She admits she’s been afraid of opera stereotypes.

“A lady with horns and, as terrible as that sounds,” she explained, “I think you think of older rich people going out and it’s not something you want to spend your money on, I guess.”

But Murphy is here tonight, although she said she usually goes to rock clubs. “It’s good to see a lot of younger people going to the opera, I think,” she said, “and this is definitely attracting more of a younger group.”

And so the Boston Lyric Opera’s plan appears to be working. “Turn of the Screw” is actually something of a bonus production for the company. After five years of three productions a season, this is its first fourth production. Artistic director Esther Nelson says they could make it happen because they saved money by going with an alternative venue.

“It is a little less expensive than doing it in a large theater,” she said, “which means we can offer our ticket prices at a lower cost, which I think is very important to attract younger people, but also in this economic climate you’re sort of looking for solutions.”

Marc Scorca is the president of Opera America, the national association for opera. He said arts organizations across the country are adopting creative programming in hard times.

“I think the Great Recession has forced everybody to think creatively about how they enhance the experience, how they make people spend their limited money on this particular ticket,” he said, “that goes beyond anything the audience member can get at home, alone, with a computer screen or a great DVD or a great CD.”

This, he said, will keep opera viable and hip, and will help attract young audiences. But, he added, “older audiences are looking for cool things too — don’t write them off.”

But Emily Pulley, the soprana, said opera is fundamentally cool — in a castle, in a theater, wherever — and has been for centuries, if you take the time to experience it.

Who knows, maybe opera is the rebellious music of the next generation. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But fun to ponder.

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