Full-time flirt: Julianne Gearhart accumulates credits and cred at Seattle Opera

Gray hair and a wealth of opera knowledge are not prerequisites for attending - or appreciating - a Seattle Opera production. Really.

Just listen to Seattle Opera's ads and read the blurbs on its Web site, and you'll find language aimed at attracting a wider audience. The company's upcoming production of "Ariadne auf Naxos," for example, is described as "the charming Strauss opera that asks the centuries-old question: how far can money go to control art? And, for the romantics, the fatal question: if a girl loses a boy, should she get another?"

Since 1996 the Seattle Opera has been courting a younger audience through its BRAVO! Club, which offers social and educational events for members between the ages of 21 and 39. In the opera's 2003-04 season, the romancing has paid off in a big way: membership jumped 60 percent to approximately 475 members.

It's not just Seattle Opera's audience that's more youthful. Witness the growing number of highly talented young singers enlivening the company, some of whom are even being elevated into the ranks of the prestigious Saturday, or first, cast.

Among the accomplished newcomers in "Ariadne auf Naxos" are Carolyn Kahl and Julianne Gearhart. Both women are fresh from Seattle Opera's 2002-03 Young Artists Program, which has been training singers since 1998, and Kahl is going for a second round in the 2003-04 program.

When Angelika Kirschlager, the Composer in the first cast, had to bow out of the production due to exhaustion, Kahl moved from understudying the Composer to singing the role in the second cast. Julianne Gearhart, who plays the saucy Zerbinetta in the second cast of "Ariadne auf Naxos," has already graced Seattle Opera's first cast. She garnered favorable reviews from the critics when she made her main stage debut as Helen Niles in the company's production of Marvin David Levy's tragedy "Mourning Becomes Electra" last fall.

"That was my cupcake debut," Gearhart said. "At least that's what they called me in the costume shop, because of my pouffy outfits."

Her big break came from being in the right place at the right time, according to Gearhart. She had been hired to play Zerbinetta and was understudying in last summer's "Parsifal" in order to be in Seattle to see the new Marion Oliver McCaw Hall open.

"A contract fell through for 'Mourning.' I was visible and was hired," Gearhart said.

Seattle Opera clearly likes Gearhart's style, engaging her to sing Olympia in Offenbach's "Contes d'Hoffmann" next season.

Having understudied Zerbinetta twice and played the part once, Gearhart is more than happy to do the role again.

"Strauss is what I'm built to be singing; he's working with my strengths all the time," Gearhart said. "And when I'm in the middle of 'Ariadne,' I'm always impressed with the new things I hear."

Gearhart noted that Zerbinetta, a young actress in an Italian comedy troupe, may be a flirt, but it's done with purpose.

"She's just as willing to flirt with women and children as she is with men, because she uses flirting to try to get people to open up to what she has to say."

Zerbinetta's coquetry saves the day in "Ariadne auf Naxos," set in 18th-century Vienna, when a wealthy man insists that the serious opera and the comedy to be performed at his party be mashed together to save time. The new hybrid must contain all of the original text and music or the performers won't get paid. Naturally, the opera's idealistic Composer, played by a woman because the character is a very young man, balks until Zerbinetta charms him into participating.

Although Gearhart will don an 18th-century harlequin costume for Zerbinetta's performance at the rich patron's soiree, she and the other players will start off in modern dress. Director Chris Alexander and set designer Robert A. Dahlstrom have brought the production into the 21st century by staging it in a Seattle art gallery, complete with glass artwork.

It's a setting where Gearhart - who has an art degree on top of her graduate studies in music and is a printmaker - should feel at home. Although in "Ariadne auf Naxos," Gearhart's artistry will be confined to music, acting and, of course, flirting.

Freelance writer Maggie Larrick lives in the Seattle area and is the former editor of the News.[[In-content Ad]]