Marc Sorca '79 is bringing opera to the masses
By Rebecca Binder '02
Some things about opera will never change. Black tie and long
dresses are still apropos at the New York Metropolitan Opera on Saturday nights.
The sullen, pierced teenager with baggy jeans, backwards baseball hat and hands
in pockets will most likely draw scathing glances as he slinks to his seat
(even if his seat is in the Grand Tier) for some time to come. But traditional
opera lovers will need to get used to the pierced neophyte, because the audience
for opera is not only growing, but also getting younger and becoming more diverse,
both economically and socially.
Despite the fears caused by ChevronTexaco’s withdrawal from sponsoring
the radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, opera in the United States
is in the midst of a resurgence of popularity in nearly every strata of society.
Far from being in danger of becoming outdated, a museum art form, opera is
enjoying a renaissance of sorts. New works are being written. New opera companies
have been established, and older ones are growing. And attendance figures are
strong, too: the opera audience is the only arts audience that has grown steadily
in the past 15 years, and it has also grown younger; the median age has declined,
with the 18- to 34-year-old age category having the greatest surge in growth.
"Opera has enjoyed tremendous growth over the past decade,” says
Marc Scorca ’79. And he should know: He is president and C.E.O. of Washington,
D.C.-based Opera America, a nonprofit organization that promotes the creation
of opera and excellence in the production of opera, as well as helping to strengthen
opera companies and developing broad and deep audiences.
Meredith Hall in Opera Atelier’s production of Claudio Monteverdi’s The
Coronation of Poppea.
In March 2002, Opera America, along with the Association of Performing
Arts Presenters, American Symphony Orchestra League, Dance/USA and Theatre
Group, formed the Performing Arts Research Coalition (PARC) to study public
attitudes toward the performing arts. “The act of going to an arts performance,” Scorca
says, "where you see your neighbors and share a special moment with them,
where you learn about yourself and your emotional reactions to what’s
on stage—that transformative power is central to why we work as hard
as we do in the nonprofit performing arts. So we wanted to discover how members
of the public ascribe value to this arts experience.” To that end, the
coalition initiated a three-year research project that will survey public attitudes
in 10 regions. In March 2003, they published the results from the first five
areas: Alaska, Cincinnati, Denver, Pittsburgh and Seattle. “The
results,” Scorca says, “are very encouraging.”
The study found that the audience for live, professional performing arts, at
least in the five cities included in the project, was larger than the audience
for live, professional sporting events. (Scorca stresses the “live, professional” qualifier;
one televised Superbowl would cause the arts
attendance figures to pale in comparison.) Also, arts attendees tended to be
more active in their communities and are more likely to volunteer. The findings
that most stand out, however, suggest that the typical vision of the opera
audience as “old, rich and white” is becoming more a myth than
a reality. The PARC project found very little relationship between age and
attendance; middle-income households attend as often as higher-income households.
The only characteristic that seemed relevant, the study found, was a strong
relationship between level of education and attendance; well-educated people
tended to be more frequent attendees.
Why education? Nobody’s sure yet, but the topic is begging to be explored. “It
may be an issue of exposure,” Scorca offers. “During a longer period
of education there are more opportunities to explore the arts and do coursework
in the arts. That’s something that needs to be researched.”
Photo: Frank Ward