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Dancing in the Streets

By Susan Carey Dempsey on November 3, 2010No Comment

Whether you’re wading into your holiday shopping or schlepping some pastrami home from the market, the last thing you might expect is for the person next to you to break into song. And not just the soft hum along with his iPod, but a full-throated rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. When dozens more voices emerge and build to crescendo amid the throngs of shoppers, it becomes clear what’s happening:  you’re in the midst of a flash opera, otherwise known as a Random Act of Culture.

Two such events unfolded in Philadelphia, PA recently: the first, when the Opera Company of Philadelphia startled shoppers in the famed Reading Terminal Market with a rendition of “Brindisi” from La Traviata. The clip’s become a popular favorite on YouTube, where the surprise turns to delight on faces as the chorus swells from every corner of the crowded market. Some three million views have been clocked on YouTube, generating emails from all over the world, as well as donations, including a $30,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

And this past Saturday, Macy’s in downtown Philadelphia was “invaded” by the Opera Company, which sang Handel’s Messiah to the accompaniment of the famed Wanamaker organ. (If you missed it, view the video at  These and other Random Acts of Culture are not as random as they may seem, although they are definitely light-hearted. They form part of a new initiative of the Knight Foundation, which will underwrite 1,000 similar flash events in eight cities: Akron, Ohio; Charlotte, N.C.; Detroit, Mich.; Macon, Ga.; Miami, Fla.; Philadelphia, Pa.; San Jose, Calif. and St. Paul, Minn. over the next three years. 

David B. Devan, executive director of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, explained why the Knight Foundation’s support for the flash performances could have far-reaching impact:

this forward-thinking initiative that recognizes live, public performance as a meaningful way to extend the reach of the classical arts beyond our theater… is allowing new audiences to experience the joy of performance in a most visceral and unforgettable way.”

Cultural institutions are having to become increasingly creative to expand their base of admirers, and potential supporters, in the face of declining philanthropic support. The decline in arts giving in 2009, according to Giving USA, was 2.4%, but coming on the heels of 2008’s 6.4% drop, has many cultural institutions, particularly smaller ones, hurting. The past two years saw the close of the Las Vegas Art Museum, the Fresno Metropolitan Museum in California and the Milwaukee Shakespeare Co., according to Bloomberg News.

Larger, more well-established institutions have also had to make adjustments, often replacing once well-heeled board members who’ve seen steep losses in their own portfolios, with younger members, according to the Wall Street Journal. As long as these new trustees can step up to the expected giving level, they may prove to be long-term loyal supporters who will grow more committed and involved over decades, conceivably.

“With many major art groups struggling with attendance, Knight Foundation wanted to provide a way to get people excited about the classical arts. Will people see a Random Act and run and then go buy opera tickets? We hope so, but can’t promise it. We do find that these bursts of performances are a deeply felt reminder of how important the classics are to our lives,” said Dennis Scholl, Knight Foundation’s vice president/arts.

Perhaps, at random, while shopping for scrapple or scarves, your own love affair with the opera could begin.

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