Today Marc Scorca, President and CEO of OPERA America, presented a lecture titled "Why Opera Matters" at Norfolk's Harrison Opera House. For those not able to join us for his presentation, we hope you enjoy this essay on the "State of the Opera" he previously penned for PBS.
Contrary to popular belief, the opera audience has been getting younger and younger. Between 1982 and 1992, the U.S. opera audience grew by almost 25 percent, according to the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts in association with the Bureau of the Census. This trend continued through 1997, when opera's audience grew by another 12.5 percent, more than any other art form.
In fact, opera enthusiasts' numbers among audiences in the 18- to 24- year old age group have grown at a remarkable rate. Between 1982 and 1992, the number of 18- to 24- year-olds attending opera performances in the US increased by 18 percent, even though the number of individuals in that age category declined by 16 percent during the same period. What are the reasons behind this explosion of interest in opera? They are simultaneously surprising and familiar.
Increasingly, the world around us requires us to deal with words, sounds, and pictures all at the same time. Opera is growing in North America because of its unique resonance with the contemporary multimedia aesthetic. When we watch and listen to the news on television, we read sports scores or weather reports across the bottom of the screen, usually while talking on the telephone. This multimedia world provides a training ground for the aesthetic complexity of opera.
We are surrounded by the sounds of opera. Academy-award winning movies have woven opera excerpts into their stories as important thematic elements. Popular artists such as Aretha Franklin and Michael Bolton have added opera music to their repertoire. Innumerable television commercials have used opera music and settings in recent years to sell their products, bringing the sound of the art form to millions of people who otherwise might never think of listening to it. In addition, groups like The Three Tenors, composed of Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carrera and Placido Domingo, have sold millions of records and taken opera to arenas never before expected, like Dodger Stadium.
Opera is truly an international art, and more and more opera companies are choosing to perform the classics in their original language. Not a problem: Surtitles and seat-back translations have become so ubiquitous that any opera-goer — newcomer or aficionado — can enjoy an opera without the barrier of a foreign language.
Whereas contemporary music used to be characterized as dissonant and challenging to the average listener, today's composers are creating scores that are being received as both musically appealing and dramatically effective. New American operas that are named after literary works, current events, or current personalities, such as Nixon in China and Harvey Milk, reveal to the public that opera is about their world.
Opera companies have been uniquely dedicated to education programs for a full generation. Perhaps it is because we are so eager to overcome the negative stereotypes about opera that our education programs have been animated by near-messianic zeal.
The development of the Internet offers a new opportunity to reach young and adult audiences with educational material that helps them to enjoy opera, regardless of their level of experience.
Opera continues to provide an artistic prism with which to view our increasingly complex world. With a growing audience, an expanding repertoire, and ever-improving artistic quality, opera promises to be a vital form of cultural expression for American audiences into the 21st century and beyond.
The above essay was commissioned from Marc Scorca, President and CEO of OPERA America. He was asked to reflect on the future of the opera, and to explain why, in his opinion, opera is still a successful form of cultural expression. Permission to use on the Virginia Opera Blog granted by KQED and OPERA America.
Marc A. Scorca joined OPERA America in 1990 as president and CEO. Since that time, the OPERA America membership has grown from 120 opera companies to nearly 2,500 organizations and individuals. An additional 16,000 subscribers now receive a variety of free and fee-based services. Under his leadership, OPERA America has administered two landmark funding initiatives in support of the development of North American operas and opera audiences and launched an endowment effort in 2000 to create a permanent fund dedicated to supporting new works and audience development activities. OPERA America’s relocation from Washington, D.C. to New York City in December 2005, the first step in the construction of a National Opera Center scheduled to open in 2012, has increased communication and collaboration with and among members both locally and nationally. Scorca has led strategic planning retreats for opera companies and other cultural institutions internationally, and has participated on panels for federal, state and local funding agencies, as well as for numerous private organizations. He also appears frequently in the media on a variety of cultural issues. A strong advocate of collaboration, Scorca has led several cross-disciplinary projects, including the Performing Arts Research Coalition and the National Performing Arts Convention (2004 and 2008). He is currently a member of the US delegation to UNESCO, and serves as an officer of the board of the Performing Arts Alliance and the Curtis Institute of Music, as well as on the Music Advisory Board of Hunter College (CUNY). Scorca attended Amherst College where he graduated with high honors in both history and music.