A FEW DAYS AFTER the sisters visit the museum, the annual Mario Lanza Institute gala weekend is kicking off at the High Note Cafe, a trattoria at 13th and Tasker. The following night, there will be a ball and a singing competition, at which four opera students will vie for scholarship money (raised in part by ticket sales from the gala weekend). Tonight is a welcome-to-Philly dinner for out-of-town attendees. Appropriately, the High Note’s waiters are trained opera singers who occasionally put down their trays of veal marsala to burst into song.
One can’t help wondering if the welcome dinner will attract the globe-trotting group of Lanza-ites that Jeanette has promised — after all, it’s Philly in November, not usually a destination for the jet set — but in fact, more than 30 Lanza lovers are here early, waiting for the 8 p.m. seating.
“They always have the best food here,” says a petite blonde named Jane with a deep Southern accent. She’s flown up from Friendswood, Texas, with her godmother, Ada, a major Lanza aficionado who comes every year for the gala weekend. Next to Jane is a British family headed by a man named Brian Beacock (“rhymes with Peacock”) who’s been jetting over annually from London since 1999 for this event. He’s in a UK club called the Friends of Mario, which he joined after hearing Lanza sing “Nessun Dorma” one day on a BBC opera presentation. At the next table, Marcel and Michele Azencot, married lawyers from Paris, are looking stylish and French; in a not-very-French show of enthusiasm, they’re videotaping the waiters, the guests and the bruschetta that’s just been plunked down on their table. By the time the chianti- is poured, a waiter is roaring away at an aria, and the guests are beaming.
Twenty-four hours later, they’re just as happy inside a ballroom at the Double-tree. Attendance is down to 75 people, about two-thirds what it was last year, says Jeanette, but the institute will still cover expenses and be able to award its $1,000-to-$2,500 scholarships. She’s a realist: With a bad economy and an aging base of members, she’s not surprised attendance has dropped so much.
Opera across the United States, and classical music in general, has seen a graying of its audience for decades. The average opera subscriber is 60 or older, and it’s proven increasingly difficult to attract younger fans. There are exceptions, of course, with a few crossover singers such as Andrea Bocelli and rising star Juan Diego Flórez, a handsome 37-year-old tenor who sang at last year’s Academy Ball concert and nearly outshone the other performer, Sting. Flórez, who’s one of the hottest names in opera at the moment, actually performed at the Lanza Ball a few years ago. (He came in second at the competition.)