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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Summer 2003 > Curtain Call
handmaid in foreground, woman hanging from a rope behind her
Helen Todd as Aunt Lydia
in the Minnesota Opera production of Poul Ruders’
The Handmaid’s Tale.

Curtain Call

1 | 2 | 3 | Opera at Amherst

So, what turned the state of opera around again? Scorca credits new trends in opera composition, a focus on more modern themes and, interestingly, another new technology: the Internet.

Today’s composers are eager to connect with their audience. “If you are writing music that only a musicologist can understand and appreciate,” Scorca says, “then your audience is necessarily limited.” In the past 20 years, opera composition has seen a return to narrative and musical themes that, if not simple, are more easily understood by audiences than are the nuances of mid-century music. Also, the past 15 years have witnessed a tremendous growth in the number of new works. But these new works don’t necessarily focus on the same themes that define the operas of the 19th century. Dead Man Walking played at the New York City Opera last fall; Dangerous Liaisons premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 1994; an opera based on playwright Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge debuted at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1999. “A lot of these new works are based on American characters or American literature or historical events in the country,” Scorca says. “So there’s a link between the subject matter of these new operas and popular culture, the modern American story.”

Scorca also attributes the recent resurgence of interest in opera to the modern expectation of a multimedia performance. “Opera is a multimedia art form in a multimedia world,” he says. “People think of multimedia as a fairly recent phenomenon; opera is a form of multimedia entertainment that was invented in 1597. The rest of the world has just caught up.” He explained that audiences—most notably younger audiences—have come to expect the fusing of words, music, movement and images. “Those basic elements describe opera as much as they describe a music video,” he says. “There is a comfort with the aesthetic complexity of our art forms among young people who have grown up with multimedia arts and entertainment. Also, many of the more popular entertainment forms deal with larger-than-life emotions: the archetypical terms of love, desire, disappointment and jealousy—the terms of opera. As I look at the connections between popular culture and opera, I see a lot of points of reference.”

Learning from the problems of the past, Opera America has turned competing media to its advantage, using the Internet to help opera reach broader and deeper audiences. Scorca stresses that the Internet—a communications platform that transmits words, sound and images—complements opera beautifully. “If we’re not thinking about how to harness this technology, we’ll be left behind by new art forms and new entertainment forms that will replace us,” he says.

One of the most effective ways to harness the technology is through education. Opera America’s research suggests that many people who don’t attend operas would, if they knew more about it. Also, frequent opera attendees indicated that they would enjoy the opera more if they had a deeper understanding of the art form’s complex layers. "Part of the responsibility of Opera America is to think of a way to keep an art form that has such a transformational power accessible to people who can benefit from the richness it has to offer,” Scorca says. To that end, Opera America has set up a distance-learning program. Developed experimentally with Boston Lyric Opera and nationally with a number of other opera companies, the program began to offer courses on opera through its Opera World website,, in the spring of 2002. When Scorca tried to think of the proper faculty to teach an online distance-learning course, two of his friends from Amherst, Roger Pines ’79 and David Jackson ’80, immediately came to mind.

"Roger Pines has forgotten more about opera than I will ever know,” Scorca says glowingly of his colleague, who is the editorial dramaturge at Lyric Opera of Chicago and who taught the first distance-learning course, on Giuseppe Verdi. “Roger’s just brilliant, and he does extraordinary work with Lyric Opera of Chicago. He’s also generous of spirit and just abundantly qualified to teach anybody anything about opera. David Jackson taught our Russian opera course; he’s one of my best friends since Amherst. His career as a conductor is developing, and he’s just an absolute expert in Russian opera and Russian arts and literature. When we wanted to do a course on Russian opera, he was the perfect person to go to.”

"It’s fascinating,” Scorca says, “because the Internet is borderless. Usually when people take one of our distance-learning courses, only about half the students are from the city where the course is linked. The other half are from anywhere around the world; it’s just been remarkable how diverse the enrollment is in each one of our classes.”

Bringing the joy of opera to the widest possible audience is really at the heart of Scorca’s work, not only because it will help opera companies, but because it makes a real difference in people’s lives. “We know from our research,” Scorca says, “that the arts help to inspire personal creativity in individuals, connect individuals to their community and foster cross-cultural understanding. We know economically that the arts are an important engine for downtown vitality and redevelopment in some cities. So the discussion can revolve around two points: the intrinsic value of the arts as a cultural expression and the instrumental value of the arts in a community. Many times, arts organizations are measured in these sorts of secondary categories of value. For example, ‘Arts organizations are important to this town because they help attract businesses, and build downtown restaurants; arts organizations do great programs at the area schools.’ We’re happy that’s true, and we believe in those programs. But the central reason we do what we do is because we believe that the arts are transformative, that the arts can inspire people.”

Next: Opera at Amherst >>

Photo: Michael Daniel


Online Extra


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

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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