What do automaker Fiat and opera have in common? To put it simply, both are Italian traditions that are growing in the U.S.

This week is National Opera Week across the U.S., and we thought we would look at both the growth of opera and the reintroduction of Fiat in America together. Indeed, we drove the new Fiat 500C around the city of Detroit on our way to the storied Detroit Opera House.

What do you know about opera in the U.S? How about the fact that it is one of the fastest growing cultural pastimes in the country, especially with people 25-45.

Opera America, which organizes National Opera Week, counts 117 professional opera companies in 43 states its membership. It also serves 19 opera companies in Canada. But there are more than that in the two countries that just aren't members.

The percentage of adults viewing or listening to opera via broadcast and recorded media remains higher than live attendance. In 2008, 11 million adults, or 4.9% of the population, viewed or listened to an opera broadcast or recording, according to the National Endowment of the Arts.

The NEA also reported that in 2008, the last year data is available, 4.8 million adults (2.1% of the adult population) attended at least one opera performance. In that opera season, there were 1,990 performances of 414 full-staged productions.

This week, dozens of opera companies will be holding activities and events to bring the public closer to the behind-the-scenes activity of opera companies. "From behind-the-scenes tours to enlightening performance talks to Twitter contests and more, there is something for everyone during National Opera Week," states Marc A. Scorca, president & CEO of OPERA America. "National Opera Week draws attention to the creativity and dynamism that propels our field today. We are proud to highlight this depth of opera activity across the United States."

Opera is a curious cultural form as it divides so many people. Anyone who watched the TV series The Odd Couple knows that Felix Unger, played by Tony Randall, and Oscar, played by Jack Klugman, were on opposite sides of the opera divide. Oscar's hatred of opera, and then being subsequently dragged in to Felix's world and enjoying the singing was a recurring theme in the show. Randall brought opera stars onto the series ads guest stars: Martina Arroyo, Richard Fredricks and Marilyn Horne. Horne has credited that episode organized by Randall as introducing her and opera to a whole generation of people who otherwise would not have ever heard of either her or opera.

Opera fans are so passionate, some in the industry call it "The NFL of the Arts." Opera fans argue and banter about who the best sopranos, baritones and tenors are like football fans argue about quarterbacks and teams.

"My friends and I crazy when it comes to opera," says Elizabeth McPhereson, a software engineer who lives in San Francisco. "Two years ago, our opera club was four of us, and now it is 16, which is about where we want it to stay." Her club meets every two weeks to either go to an opera, or listen to a new recording at one of the members' houses, and, yes, argue and debate about the performances.

The Italian Connection

Fiat can only hope at this point that it's Italian brand can enjoy the same sort of surge as opera. The company, which is now aligned with Chrysler, launched the Fiat 500, known in Europe and South America as the Cinquecento, in the U.S. last Spring. The company is about to launch a performance version of the car, called the Fiat Abarth, followed by electric version next year. After that, there are expected to be larger, mid-sized Fiats, as well as the re-introduction of the Alfa-Romeo brand to showrooms carrying Fiats.

Fiat, back in the 1970s, created a couple of special editions of its Fiat 130 sedan that was dubbed the "Opera." Beyond that, Fiat is a big financial supporter of opera in Italy.

There are a lot of modern operas written in the last thirty or forty years on surprising topics: Nixon in China; Life With an Idiot and The Grapes of Wrath. No one has written one yet centered on the launch of a car company or a miraculous new car that runs on water. But with the pace of creativity in opera, as well as the auto industry, it shouldn't be long.

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