Patricia Kiernan Johnson talks to Marc A Scorca, President/CEO of OPERA America.

PKJ: Although the art form has its roots and history in Europe, opera seems to be thriving in North America. Do you agree with that, and, if so, what are some of the causes?

MAS: Opera is definitely thriving across the United States and in Canada. There is an incredible number of new works being developed today by North American composers about subjects that resonate with audiences. These works vary greatly in scale, size and scope and include grand and experimental opera. This surge in creation is fueled by a huge increase in the number of composers, librettists, directors and designers who want to express themselves through opera – a multimedia art form with an enormous canvas that is enticing to young artists. 

Marc Scorca © Jeff Reeder
Marc Scorca
© Jeff Reeder
We’ve also seen an increase in the number of opera conservatory programs and young artist programs, creating more singers than ever before. Many of these singers have an entrepreneurial energy that has propelled them to form opera companies of their own – often pushing the boundaries of the art form. In New York City, the New York Opera Alliance consists of 42 of the city’s smaller ensembles, and there is a similar alliance in Boston with ten companies. Many other cities throughout the country, such as San Francisco, St Louis and Minneapolis, take pride in having multiple opera companies with multiple viewpoints. That creates a very healthy environment for opera.  

PKJ: Recently, several opera companies have adopted a festival format. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of festivals?

MAS: Festivals are interesting because they present an opportunity for producers to present a concentrated, immersive experience for audience members. Festivals allow for greater repertoire diversity and create a spirit of experimentation. Within a concentrated festival framework, there are many touchpoints throughout. Audiences can attend an array of lectures, pre- and post-performance events, and really get to know the company and its artists. The festival format also has the potential to attract out-of-town visitors who can then see two or three different titles in one weekend. The amount of festival activity also helps opera companies gain visibility in the media because it’s a special, intense time for opera. When you perform only one opera a month, as many non-festival companies do, it’s very hard to get media coverage today.  

That said, the traditional structure does create year-round visibility for opera companies, unlike festivals, which have intense visibility for only one or two months. If an opera company is only on view for a short time each year, it can make marketing and fundraising a real challenge. 

PKJ: For opera companies that do not have the benefit of a year-round performance schedule, how do they go about maintaining their visibility during non-performance times?

MAS: One method of maintaining a public service profile is education programs. A lot of our festivals have really good student programs during school hours, after school and on the weekends that extend throughout the year. A lot of our opera companies also are building adult and community engagement programs that feature seminars about the works that are coming up. Those seminars introduce composers and librettists of new works, and activities might include a film festival or collaborations with local theater companies to further explore an opera’s source material or theme.

PKJ: Until somewhat recently, much of the repertoire being produced by North American opera companies was traditional, relying heavily on the historic European chestnuts to form the bulk of the season. But that has been changing dramatically in recent seasons, which have featured works by younger North American composers like Jake Heggie, Kevin Puts, Jennifer Higdon and Missy Mazzoli. What has caused this change?

MAS: There certainly has been a sustained increase in the production of new American opera at almost every company large and small, coast to coast. This is because of several factors, one of which is strategic philanthropy over the last 30 years. Back in the 1980s, there was great concern that opera was at risk of becoming a museum art form, dominated by works of previous centuries. Beginning in the mid-1980s, OPERA America and some leadership funders began to invest in the creation and production of American opera by providing support to opera companies to offset the exceptional costs associated with new works. Between commissioning fees, extra rehearsals, new sets and costumes, and copying orchestral parts, new works are very expensive to produce. 

Our opera companies became increasingly skilled at introducing these new works and the creative process to audiences through seminars and symposia that explored particular themes with the creators and outside speakers, in partnership with libraries, community centers, film societies and local theater companies. In this way, opera companies learned to build excitement for new work and its subject matter, which so often resonates strongly with the world we live in. As audiences became accustomed to new work, they began to look forward to these operas as a change of pace from the 19th-century European masterpieces. 

We have found, over time, that some of the European masterpieces have lost their resonance with contemporary American audiences. With decreased music education in schools, audiences don’t necessarily recognize the composer names or titles as they once did a generation or two ago. But they are more likely to recognize and be intrigued by titles and subject matter based on films, books or recognizable historical figures.  

PKJ: In addition to revamping season formats and developing new repertoire, are there other ways that North American opera companies today are breaking away from traditional choices?

MAS: One of the great things about opera today is that many performances are taking place in alternative venues. The opera house is a phenomenal place in which to see grand opera, but for some of the more intimate operas of the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries, and for a lot of new operas, alternative venues are better settings for these performances. We are also seeing a number of companies selecting venues that really connect with the subject matter of the operas themselves. Alternative venues have become a real tool that companies have been able to use to increase the artistic impact of their work, and to make the company more accessible to different audiences. By performing in a variety of neighborhoods, the opera company becomes more embedded in the community, and often these venues may surprise the public about how opera can be enjoyed and produced. By rethinking the venues, opera companies have been able to broaden the style, form, content and accessibility of our art form.  

 

OPERA America is the national champion for the entire opera field and has been dedicated since its founding in 1970 to supporting the creation, presentation and enjoyment of opera. With a membership network that includes more than 400 organizations and 1200 individuals, OPERA America is committed to supporting all those who bring the art form to life — artists, administrators, trustees and audiences. Marc Scorca joined the organization in 1990, and under his leadership, OPERA America has developed landmark funding initiatives in support of new operas and to grow audiences. In 2012, OPERA America opened the National Opera Center in New York City, creating a dedicated home for the opera industry.