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Opera in America

November 01, 2010

(Melanie Feilotter is director of information and learning services at OPERA America, which serves and strengthens its field through programs in the creation, presentation, and enjoyment of opera. This post originally was published in PND's Commentary section.)

Magic_flute Opera is not a quiet endeavor, particularly during National Opera Week, when companies take to the streets with events such as "Pop-Up Opera" (Chicago Opera Theater), free dress rehearsals open to high-school students (Boston Lyric Opera), and performances in libraries (Opera San Jose). For the next week (October 29 to November 7), opera will be fully in the public sphere, accessible to broad and diverse audiences through a variety of non-traditional modes of presentation.

Of course, the artistry will continue even after National Opera Week is over, though in more traditional venues. Opera has a relatively short history in America, yet every state has at least one traditional opera company, over half of all opera companies were established after 1970, and a quarter have been established since 1980 — testimony to the field's relatively recent and continuing growth. Many of these companies offer an even broader range of repertoire spanning the entire 400-year history of the form, from Baroque masterpieces to contemporary American operas.

But there's an even more telling gauge of the health of opera in America today: OPERA America has identified no less than 193 artist-driven opera ensembles that have sprung up in recent years in just eighteen metropolitan areas across the U.S. Whether two- or three-person enterprises, university programs, or volunteer-run amateur companies, these entities share a passion and purpose: to enrich artists and audiences, raise awareness of opera as a vital part of our cultural life, and make it more accessible to the public. Few, if any, have permanent homes; they operate out of school auditoriums or churches, often underwriting costume and prop costs out of their own pockets.

These grassroots organizations have been established for a number of reasons: to provide more opportunities to emerging (and established) artists in a relatively small marketplace; to allow for experimentation with new works that are too risky (or simply inappropriate in scale) for big companies; and to bring opera to neighborhoods that have never had easy access to live performances. Perhaps most importantly, these companies are surviving and thriving because they are finding audiences.

There has always been an established audience for opera in this country, and today it is growing — though perhaps not in the way one might expect or be able to quantify (at least not yet). Once thought of as a luxury good for the wealthy and educated arts consumer, opera companies of all sizes are more than ever seeking new relationships in their communities. Many companies now offer cheerful etiquette advice on their Web sites, making it easier for newcomers to engage with the art form, while the HD transmissions of live performances from New York City's Metropolitan Opera have gone a long way toward making opera accessible in regions that are "opera-less."

Most companies today have strong ties to public schools and frequently bring performances into the classroom, giving students their first exposure to the form, while a plethora of more comprehensive programs have been developed over recent decades, with companies sending artists into schools to train teachers how to integrate opera's many dimensions — music, history, literature, dance — into the curriculum. OPERA America itself offers its members a textbook and curriculum series for use in teacher training workshops that was recently introduced in four new cities. And our professional company members invested over $10 million in education and community outreach last year.

The relationship that companies and artists have to their communities is crucial to the art form: opera companies are (and need to be) connected to their patrons' sensibilities. As one historian said, "Among Western musical forms, only opera demands more bodies in the audience than are needed to perform it." Today, however, the needs of audiences aren't uniform. Mature patrons may be intrigued by a new work or respond to the cachet of a premiere. Younger patrons, with few past points of reference, may be eager to hear the classics while remaining open to and accepting of edgier productions. And, of course, there's always an audience for opera in its most unadulterated form, on a big stage with full orchestra and traditional sets.

Some may see these dichotomies — small and nimble enterprises versus traditional companies, new works versus old — as a reflection of a field in crisis or searching for an identity in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cultural attitudes and biases have long informed opera's evolution and place in the arts marketplace, and today is no different, with one exception: new technologies give us the tools to unlock creativity — including creative engagement of audiences — as never before. The opera landscape in 2010 permits and even encourages experimentation, without sacrificing the elements — musical quality and imaginative storytelling — that make the form distinct and great. It's a boon to the field that not everyone is racing to do the same thing. Indeed, the many manifestations of the operatic form have the capacity to attract many different kinds of opera-lovers while offering much greater accessibility in terms of cost and cultural preferences. And once people watch and listen to an opera, they soon appreciate its role as an unmatched teacher of history, beauty, discipline, and collaboration.

While art is recession-proof, the businesses that produce it are not. Big companies have made difficult decisions in recent years to scale back on productions and performances as philanthropic support has faltered. It's imperative that opera institutions, regardless of size, continue to be supported so that the field can extend its foothold in our schools — where the audiences of tomorrow are waiting to be dazzled — and diversify its repertoire, presentation channels, and business practices for a new generation of opera lovers.

-- Melanie Feilotter

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Wonderful to read all the exciting ways opera is making itself "heard."

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