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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Summer 2003 > Curtain Call
production of Midsummer Night's Dream
The Florentine Opera Company’s
production of Benjamin Britten’s
A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Curtain Call

1 | 2 | 3 | Opera at Amherst

"What is very interesting is that the very high value given to the arts experience is held by both attendees and nonattendees,” Scorca says. For example, the PARC project found that between 31 and 38 percent of the people surveyed perceive the arts as increasing cultural understanding in a community, even if they don’t attend arts performances themselves. “Even if someone doesn’t go to the opera, they still appreciate it,” Scorca says. “They still understand that the arts are important and that the arts organizations in their communities are important.”

That’s exactly why Opera America has become so vital to American opera. Counting 117 American and 19 Canadian professional opera companies as its members and leaving only a handful of professional opera companies in America and Canada unaffiliated, the organization compiles the experiences of each member company into a cohesive whole. “We collect information, both statistical and anecdotal,” Scorca explained. “We do national research projects; we essentially try to accumulate the experience and wisdom of our field into a more accessible form, so it can be made available to our members, who, we hope, use it to help do their work more effectively in their community.” Opera America also works with public policy and monitors legislation’s impact on the arts, particularly immigration law that affects foreign artists’ entering the country and tax law that affects the deductibility of charitable gifts to arts organizations.

"What really attracted me to Opera America,” Scorca says, “is that I enjoy running an organization. But part of the responsibility of this organization is to think theoretically and philosophically about the art form; to think about the important intersection between the art form and community, between the art form and public policy, between the art form and new audiences.”

Opera has had its hold on Scorca since his childhood outside of New York City. His grandparents were great fans of the opera who loved going to New York to watch Enrico Caruso perform. “It’s always what I’ve wanted to do,” he said. “My parents took me to my first opera when I was in junior high, and I went to the Met countless times with my high school friends, standing room only.” As a freshman at Amherst, Scorca wrote to the Metropolitan Opera asking for a volunteer position over Interterm. “So for four years, I spent every summer break, winter break, every Thanksgiving break, every day I could,” he remembered. “I had a desk at the Metropolitan Opera, two wonderful projects that I worked on the entire time I was there, and standing-room privileges. My record was seeing 44 performances in 41 days, all standing room.”

It’s unlikely that the general opera-goer will match Scorca’s degree of dedication, but clearly the trend is toward his position. The optimistic state of opera today is all the more impressive because opera is just now climbing out of a difficult period in its history. Beginning in the 1890s, opera, unrivaled for almost 300 years, suddenly had to compete with modern technology and the mass media. In 1890, there were two ways to enjoy opera: attend a live performance, or, if you were blessed with enough talent, sing your favorite arias at the living-room piano. By 1915, though, you could indulge yourself with Caruso’s voice on 78-rpm records without the fuss, expense and inconvenience of leaving your living room for the opera house.

When cinema was introduced, opera found itself on unsteady ground. “If we look at how opera moved from being a cutting-edge art form that thrived on new works to being an art piece that was threatened with becoming a museum art form, I think we have to look at the intersection of opera and film,” Scorca says. “I’m not positing a causal relationship, but I do think that it’s something to be explored; it’s interesting to think about.”

On top of the new competitors for the opera audience, the Great Depression, World War II and a lack of funds hit the industry where it hurt: in the wallet. Scorca explains: “It’s expensive to produce an opera. It was cheaper to bring on a performance of Carmen, where you already owned the sets and costumes, than it was to build new sets and costumes, not to mention to pay for the commissioning process and the rehearsal process that a new opera requires.”

Beyond basic financial concerns, there were aesthetic reasons for the stagnation of opera in the 20th century. Some people cite the premature death of composer George Gershwin as one of several setbacks. The Metropolitan Opera in New York had commissioned Gershwin to write a new opera after Porgy and Bess; Gershwin died before completing the opera, leaving a trend toward new opera with little to feed on. In addition, contemporary classical music became very difficult music toward the middle of the century. “The composers of new music moved into a school of composition that was particularly difficult for audiences to enjoy,” Scorca says (imagine, if you can, a John Cage aria). “There was a general sense that audiences didn’t like contemporary music, and that if you did a contemporary opera they wouldn’t come. So, in addition to having the expense of producing a new opera, you would lose the revenue at the box office. It was kind of a double-edged sword.”

Continued >>

Photo of The Coronation of Poppea: Bruce Zinger
Photo of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Richard Brodzeller photography, Florentine Opera Company

 
 

Online Extra

RELATED LINKS

Opera America

Audio of an interview with Marc Scorca at Opera America

Performing Arts Research Coalition

Biography of Marc Scorca at Opera World

Distance Learning at Opera World

Opera Volunteers International

Essay by Marc Scorca at PBS.org

Marc Scorca is quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle article, "Out from Shadows of the Metropolitan Opera"

Metropolitan Opera

ChevronTexaco Opera Information Center

 
     
     
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