We've all been hearing about the closings of opera companies around the country, like Baltimore Opera, Connecticut Opera, Opera Pacific, and even our own local Orlando Opera, to name a few. Some companies are combining their forces with orchestras and doing semi-staged operas. Other companies are scaling back, mounting fewer operas, doing fewer performances of each opera, or cutting summer programs or their educational outreach programs completely. Even well-established companies like Lyric Opera Chicago and New York City Opera are not immune; NYCO currently has no season, and they lost their projected new artistic director, Gerard Mortier from France, before he ever arrived, because they could not afford pay him enough.
What's going on here?
Well, it's the economy, right? Everyone is being affected, and once the system recovers, things can resume as normal. Or can they? Should they? What exactly is NORMAL? And should we use this economic situation to re-evaluate how we are doing things and how we can make it better?
When long-established companies not only have to cut back but actually close for good, it seems to me, something bigger and more fundamental is wrong. Something is going on other than just an economic recession - something that speaks to the very core of HOW we do opera here in America. In Europe, when there is an economic or other crisis, art thrives. What exactly is going on here?
Recently, the New York Times published the budget for a second-tier opera company. As a professional musician, I was shocked at how much money was being thrown around, not just in administrative salaries, but also in, what seems to me as, over-inflated production costs. And we're not talking the MET or LA Opera here....
True, opera is a very expensive artform to produce. It is a combination of music, visual arts, ballet, symphonic orchestra music etc., clearly a feast for the senses; and that comes with a price tag - for sure. But, I questioned whether all this money was really necessary. To put on opera, you need money for sets, costumes, orchestra, and conductors and singers fees etc. But how much money are we really talking about here? We need to re-examine where the money is coming from to pay the costs associated with this great artform; and what can we do better to keep the art alive and healthy in this country, financially and otherwise.
In America, most regional opera companies produce three or four mainstage operas a year. For these operas, they rent a set, which comes in from another company and city, costumes from another company or central costume warehouse, they hire the cast of principles from New York City or other parts of the country, the conductor flies in from somewhere else as does the stage director oftentimes. These people rehearse the show for a couple of weeks and present it to the public after which everyone gets their paycheck and goes home, or in most cases, off to another city to do the same. The show was great, local audiences are happy and everyone goes about their business until the next show....and so on.
But what about the local community? Sure, there's some community involvement with the art-making in the fact that the chorus members and supernumaries may have been local. Also, many times the orchestra musicians are local - so we're not exactly talking about a "touring production". However, is it not possible to produce opera wholly from within the community, involving more people, and stimulating growth of the artform in the community a little better?
In Europe, for the most part, every city or town pretty much has its own opera company, with its own professional singers, musicians, dancers, conductors, and directors. A new production is truly an artistic achievement for the entire community. You'll even find while traveling that most European towns have their own Opera House where there is a constant buzz of activity - everything from seemingly constant performances, training programs for community singers, choristers and children, opera appreciation courses, strong local artistic and administrative leadership with in-house conductors, stage directors, costumers, set designers, production managers, artistic administrative staffs etc. There, it is the community who puts on the operas, and as a result, it is the entire community that continues to thrive because every production they do helps build this sense of community, involving as many folks as possible. This flurry of activity and excitement exudes from within the organization out into the community attracting new performers, new patrons, new opera lovers and new audience members every day. The excitement and drama of opera is being introduced in a variety of different ways to adults and children alike and the artform is constantly growing and expanding in new directions.
In America, we've gone in a different direction and it seems to me that we are off-track. We have vocal music teachers in our schools who have never been in or have never even be to see an opera. In fact, many school music teachers wouldn't have a clue of where to even begin teaching children about opera because they have no or little understanding of it themselves. It seems every High School has an annual "musical" production but when was the last time we saw high schoolers doing an opera? In America, a typical night out on the town consists of "dinner and a movie" but what are we doing as opera organizations to promote "dinner and an opera"?
There clearly needs to be a re-assessment of the aims, goals, and attitudes of opera organizations in the United States if opera is to survive - and NOW is the time to get busy doing it. We've got to do a better job stimulating growth of the local economy by producing the sets and costumes locally, and hiring professional singers and musicians for our productions from the local area.
MYTH: There aren't any really great local performers that we can produce a really great opera.
FACT: Just for starters: Deborah Voigt, one of the opera world's greatest DIVAS calls her home Vero Beach, FL. It doesn't get much better than that. Another world renowned opera DIVA, Susan Neves lives right here in Orlando as does one of the worlds most celebrated Cio-cio San's, Catherine Lamy. And the list goes on and on. The fact is there are plenty of wonderful singers from Florida to cast and produce our operas locally. Once we start doing so, we might even find a plethora of opera artists moving here to Orlando instead of choosing another city to call home.
In sum, we must start fostering a deeper and more complete understanding and appreciation of opera as an artform from within each opera organization extending out into our community. And that will take initiative and creativity in building an all but lost sense of community involvement in the artform. Then and only then will we see the continuance and growth of opera in America in the coming years.