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A conversation with Opera America’s President and CEO Marc Scorca

Michael Fabiano as the Duke. Photo by Richard Zendarski

Mark Scorca, President and CEO of Opera America.

Listen to the interview.

FGO: Tell us a little about your background.

Marc Scorca: My name is Mark Scorca. I am president and CEO of Opera America, and I have been in opera my entire life – 22 years as President and CEO of Opera America and before then I worked for opera companies in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago.

FGO: Opera as a traditional art form fights a number of stereotypes such as opera is for old people, it’s boring, it’s too expensive to attend, I won’t understand the language, etc. What have you found are the most effective methods that companies use to combat these assumptions that are largely untrue today.

Scorca: First of all, I think it’s really important to recognize and to emphasize that opera is a multimedia art form in a multimedia world. There are other art forms that I love: symphony orchestra concerts, and chamber music programs, and those are really auditory experiences that we enjoy in a multimedia world. What is special about opera is the fact that you have a complex mix of words, music, and images, which are in fact the building blocks of anything that we find on the Internet, any multimedia entertainment we enjoy today: music videos, all sorts of electronic games. Opera is an art form that uses the same elements as the popular entertainment around us and from that point of view; I think that we have a great advantage. Also, people are accustomed in the movies, children even in cartoons, dealing with larger than life stories and larger than life characters. Opera is the classical art form that features these archetypical and legendary stories about love lost, heroism, desire, and larger than life characters, just like the characters that we see in movies and other forms of popular entertainment. So, the fundamentals of opera are completely compatible with the entertainment world in which we live. Now, you asked a question about an older audience, expensive tickets, and a couple of the other stereotypes. They’re not just stereotypes, but there is actually some truth to them and I think one of the first things we can do is not to deny that many tickets in the opera house are expensive. However, through all kinds of ticket programs and smart pricing, there are tickets in the opera house that are available for reasonable prices consistent with many HD transmissions, somewhat more expensive than just a movie but a lot less expensive than many other forms of popular entertainment that people will spend their money on. So, there is truth that some of those main floor or box tickets are expensive, but there are plenty of less expensive tickets as well. In terms of the age of the audience, I think a lot of that depends on where you sit. If you sit in expensive main floor seats or sit in expensive box seats, you will probably be sitting next to older people who have the disposable income to pay higher ticket prices. Go upstairs where ticket prices are less expensive and you will find younger people. As in all cases, opera has some of these stereotypes and we have to be honest and strategic about overcoming them.

FGO: Currently, many companies are finding it necessary produce operas in rep at least one time per season, which patrons tend to dislike. What are your thoughts on doing rep?

Scorca: Repertoire performance, in which you do two or three performances simultaneously, I don’t think there is a right answer or a wrong answer there. Some people argue that to have a higher quality you need to do one opera at a time so you’re focused on one cast and one production without having to divide that attention among two or three productions. There are some people who really enjoy having the intensity of an opera experience where you can see two operas in the same week or even two operas in the same weekend. The pieces can complement one another in terms of the period in which they were written or the style of production. Other people prefer just seeing one opera a month in the long winter months. There is no wrong or right answer. I think it is very much about the strategy of the opera company. People really enjoy opera festivals where you can see three, or four, or five operas in a week or a weekend as at Glimmerglass, St. Louis, or Santa Fe, central city opera. These opera companies offer audiences a really intensive experience where a diverse repertoire interacts one opera with another: new operas, old operas, traditional operas, and updated opera productions. So it is very much about personal taste here. From a strategic point of view, maybe in Miami where it’s a destination city and where people go to for vacation. It is advisable to do once in a while two operas in a week or two operas in a weekend so that visitors can partake in more than just one opera in their visit. I think it is up to each opera company and its strategy for audience development. On the part of the public, it is very much subject to personal taste.  

FGO: Wonderful. Boston.com recently posted an article on opera Boston titled: “Why Boston isn’t an opera town”, citing civic involvement and tradition as core reasons behind the opera company’s closing. What do you think makes an opera town and do you think Miami has what it takes to become one?

Scorca: I don’t believe that Boston isn’t an opera town. I don’t know what makes an opera town or not. To support an arts organization in any discipline, you need a critical mass of people who are interested in buying tickets and people who are willing to make contributions beyond the ticket price to support the institution. In opera, ticket prices cover only one third, 40% percent if we’re lucky, of the actual expenses of producing an opera. An opera town has a critical mass of people who are dedicated to the art form as ticket buyers and contributors. In Boston, Boston lyric opera has been around serving an enthusiastic public for nearly 30 years so there certainly is evidence of an opera audience in Boston, and I don’t believe that Boston isn’t an opera town. In terms of Miami, it has a distinguished history in more than half a century of supporting opera in the community. Clearly, you have a cadre of people who enjoy going to operas as ticket buyers and people who support it philanthropically, and yes, that population of opera lovers seems to be expanded and cultivated but there is clear evidence over half a century of the support for opera in Miami.

FGO: Appealing to a younger crowd is on every opera company’s checklist. How can opera become more youth-friendly in your opinion?

Scorca: Certainly attracting a younger audience is something that everyone talks about. I just want to assure you that people have been talking about that for the entire 35 years that I have been in the industry. Attracting a younger audience has been a high priority for decades, and I imagine that it is going to be a high priority for decades to come. That said, I do believe that there is a certain natural ebb and flow in the way people enjoy opera. If you think about the audience that everyone says they want: an audience in their 20s or in their 30s. Gosh, when you’re in your 20s and just out of college and probably in an entry level job, you may not have a whole lot of income to buy tickets to anything. You may have student loans and if you’re in your 30s you may be starting a family and have young children who can be left easily with a babysitter. I know plenty of young parents who might want to go out to the opera, symphony, and theater or just for dinner but they can’t because of the young children at home. So by the time you get to the point in life, when a lot of people share a certain commonality in this, when children are old enough to be left on their own, where student loans are retired and there is enough disposable income to begin going out to dinner, sports events and opera, we see attendance pickup. Thus, there is a natural tendency for any arts audience- opera, symphony, and dance, theater- to be a little bit older, in terms of the people who come regularly and who contribute, because that is the nature of the life cycle. It’s not easy to get people who are in their 20s and 30s for some of the reasons that I’ve cited. That said, having flexible ticket programs, where people don’t have to stick to the tickets of the subscription series, where it’s easy to change tickets for a different date in the event that you have to change your schedule, having tickets that are reasonably priced at good locations within the theater, having social events around those, so it’s not just the active going to an opera but it’s going to a dinner before or a reception before or a party after with some of the cast members who may be younger people themselves. I think, building around a performance- some other extended entertainment events- to make it a real evening out, might be a way to attract some younger people.  

FGO: Opera America has been a major supporter of modern American opera. In your opinion, what is the future of American opera?

Scorca: I’m very optimistic about American opera, very optimistic as a matter of fact. When I entered the business, thirty something odd years ago, new American operas were rare; they were rarely commissioned and rarely performed. Today, we see new operas being performed in our major companies and at new works laboratories, which ten years ago didn’t exist nearly in the numbers that they exist today. There are composers, librettists, directors and designers who really want to do new American opera for a whole variety of reasons. So, I see an increase, a dramatic and profound increase in the number of new American operas that have been produced over the last number of years. We now have an American opera repertoire. An opera company could easily put on several seasons in a row of nothing but American operas that are varied in their subject matter and style of composition. And despite the rough economy that we’ve seen, the number of new operas produced seems to proceed unabated, real evidence that there is an appetite for not only the creation and the production, but for attending these pieces that usually tell American stories in contemporary musical and theatrical terms that appeal to audiences. The days of the mid 20th century when new music seemed to be stereotypically but in certain cases truly difficult to listen to, today’s composers really are tempting in every opportunity to connect with audiences, to make their operas both contemporary and appealing, modern and yet rooted in their tradition of opera as we know it and love it. So, the compositional style of American opera has matured. Audiences have matured in their openness to some of these works. And opera companies seem to be really set on a course in including American opera in as many seasons as possible.

FGO: Unlike 30 years ago when the number of opera companies was on a steady rise, the past 10 years has seen many companies close or restructure in light of the economic situation. What are some of the important changes you see taking place in the opera industry in the coming years

Scorca: Well, I just had an interesting conversation with Richard Evans who is going to be speaking at Opera America’s annual conference in June in Philadelphia and he said that the situation is kind of like climate change in this world where the climate is changing we see it getting warmer and colder. That both extremes are being emphasized: global warming isn’t merely a matter of uniform warming. Similarly in opera, there are signs of incredible vitality. There are many, many more small opera companies starting up in cities than we’ve ever seen before. These opera companies are artist driven, they are not large organizations but they are spontaneous, creative enterprises that are offering performances of a diverse repertoire, sometimes in very unusual venues frequently featuring young artists. A lot of these smaller companies are producing new American works as well. At the same time, we see some established opera companies that are 20, 30, 50 years old closing because of an accumulation of deficits and other structural and leadership problems. So at the same time that we are seeing the loss of some companies, we are seeing the births of other companies. Even in cities where opera companies closed, as let’s say Baltimore, the Baltimore Opera closed but this fall, a new company called Baltimore Lyric Opera has opened. In some cities, to use a nature analogy, you need to have a bit of a forest fire in order for new growth to occur. And in some cities, the established opera companies indeed have struggled for years and they have closed as a result of the strain of this recession, but there is continued opera enthusiasm in those cities leading to the establishment of new companies. It is not an exclusively bad news report, I’m sorry to see some established opera companies close, but I am cheered by the number of new companies that are being established that are really enlivening the opera scene with creative productions and new operas.

FGO: Do you have any additional comments you would like to share on the state of the opera in Miami or as it relates to the Florida Grand Opera in particular.

Scorca: I’m really excited to watch the future of Florida Grand Opera. It is such an exciting city and a city with unique dynamics in terms of its transplanted population from other cities in the United States and its visitor population from around the world. It is a city that is multicultural and certainly multilingual. The Spanish speaking audience might enjoy the traditional opera as well as Spanish language tradition in the opera family. I think it is an opera company that has the opportunity to chart a course for the new American city- the new American city being one with a transient population and a population that is speaking many different languages and from many different cultural backgrounds. I really hope that Florida Grand Opera can be in the vanguard of discovering a mix of opera productions styles, repertoire, perhaps venues too, that appeals to a unique audience, but an audience that will be replicated in other great American cities.




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