Marc Scorca looks ahead after 25 years at Opera America

An interview with Nicholas Payne

With the launch of the European Opera Network in 1991, Marc A. Scorca, President/CEO of OPERA America, helped form Opera Europa. Twelve years later, he offered me invaluable advice after I was appointed Director of Opera Europa. Now celebrating 25 years leading OPERA America, North America’s association for opera, Scorca, as ever, looks forward.

 

Nicholas Payne: What lessons might European companies learn from recent developments in American opera companies?
​Marc Scorca: The similarities and differences between the unique characteristics of our two systems always intrigue me. The United States has certainly seen a change in the opera environment in recent years, accelerated by the Great Recession of 2008. On the one hand, we have experienced decreases in attendance at main stage performances; while on the other hand, we see greater public interest in opera as demonstrated by transmissions to sports arenas, by the uptake on discounted tickets and the attendance at public performances. There is undiminished curiosity about the art form and opera companies are working on strategies to induce those who are curious to come into the opera house. Meanwhile, there are challenges in retention for our traditional audiences, who continue to attend opera, but less frequently. Subscription sales, formerly the backbone of our business model, are down; people seem less willing to make commitments a year in advance. People are interested in flexibility. They want to decide today or tomorrow what they’re going to attend on Saturday night from among the increasing multiplicity of choices.

NP: It's easier to make people go who have already made the commitment than to get new people through the gate?
MS: At Opera Theatre of St. Louis, 26% of their audience last year was first-time attendees. The Lyric Opera of Chicago documented similar first-time attendance, helped in part by adding a classic American musical outside their subscription series. Opera companies are succeeding in attracting first-time attenders. The greater challenge seems to be to get people to come back again and again. And this is true across the arts, not just in opera: There is a huge number of people willing to try the traditional performing arts, who may come back in a subsequent season, but they are not becoming habitual attendees as they may have in the past.

NP: Is this a trend for which European opera companies should prepare themselves? 
MS: Increasing choices in entertainment will continue to challenge all of us, equally in Europe and in North America. Producing organisations will be increasingly challenged to influence those choices. The other trend with a potential resonance for Europe is the growth in the number of artist-driven opera companies, which are now flourishing across the United States and Canada. The New York Opera Alliance, which Opera America supports, now comprises almost forty opera producing organizations. Some are neighborhood companies that give local singers a chance to perform; some are laboratories producing a steady stream of new work that is redefining opera for the 21st century. There are more than twenty such companies in the San Francisco Bay area. In Boston, a group of eleven opera companies recently came together for an evening showcase of their various styles and repertoires. Artists who cannot find steady work in the mainstream opera infrastructure, are coming together to perform on their own. They are performing new and unusual work in traditional and non-traditional venues. In New York, a company called Opera Mission is led by a determined woman leading this company in performing all of the Handel operas chronologically. The first two were performed in a grand old hotel lobby. Empowered artists –entrepreneurial artists – are a force that is adding huge vitality to the American opera scene. They are providing opportunities for young directors, designers, conductors and singers. They are a workshop for new works. This infrastructure also discovers new audience members who enjoy walking down the street to a loft, warehouse, church or a nightclub that has been converted into an ‘opera house’. The art form is being redefined into a 21st century American vernacular. 

NP: Conversely, from your visits to Europe, are there particular tips, lessons, trends that you have learned over recent years?
MS: What strikes me in Opera Europa meetings is the question of proportionality in the conversation. In the United States, conversations are dominated by business, by the fundraising and the marketing imperatives essential to balancing budgets that have minimal government support. In Europe, even where government support is diminishing but still generous by our standards, there is more leeway for opera companies to talk about the art form: to talk about repertoire, to speak about different production styles. A probing artistic conversation threads through Opera Europa meetings that is more dominant than it is through OPERA America meetings. Many of the general directors in Europe function more like artistic directors. In the United States the general director is in charge of running the business. The artistic enterprise is only a part of a larger conversation about revenue generation and public relations and community value. 

NP: Have you experienced a falling off in endowments and in levels of private funding? Do we have to invent new business models both in the US and in Europe?
MS: Private funding in the United States has not fallen off. If we look at the total amount given to opera companies by corporations, foundations and individual donors, the total has increased and continues to increase. Certainly, during the Great Recession there was significant retrenchment that resulted in deficits that companies are still working through. In the fiscal year 2013, the number of opera companies with balanced budgets has increased. Endowments have increased with the recovery of the stock market and many donors recognised during the Great Recession that increased endowments were essential to the health of organisations. There are a number of companies with endowments that have increased not just because of natural performance of the stock market, but because of additional generous contributions. The private support model continues to work in the United States. But there is legitimate concern about the significant dependence of many companies on a few very large donors and worry that some of the most generous donors to opera are older individuals. There are questions about whether the next generation in those generous families will continue the opera philanthropic tradition. But new donors are coming into the fold, established donors are more generous than ever, and, as opera companies discover new ways to develop and communicate their value in their communities, there are corporations and foundations that are increasing their support. Of course, it’s difficult to change the business model without changing the business, and the fact is that we still are in the business of producing opera, which will always be a tremendously expensive undertaking. 

NP: Do you believe that the private funding based model is more robust than the public funding one? 
MS: Certainly. Individuals are motivated by their passion for the art form. They are willing to contribute in order to preserve and strengthen an organisation that affords them performances of the art form they love. Individuals can be far more consistent over time than corporations, foundations or government agencies. 

NP: Are you worried about the high profile failures, like New York City Opera, Baltimore, San Diego, or is it just a question of natural survival of the fittest? 
MS: How long should an organisation continue if it has lost its way? The story of New York City Opera is far more a story about the changes in New York than it is about the failure of the private support system. When Fiorello LaGuardia called New York City Opera ‘the people’s opera’ in 1943, there was a thriving middle class comprising Italian and Jewish immigrants from countries that had spawned the opera repertoire. Today, the two largest immigrant groups in New York are Dominican and Chinese. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Opera’s repertoire and style of production have evolved and alternative opera companies have emerged that are more innovative than City Opera. City Opera’s raison d’être diminished, and with it its audience and donor base. I think it’s a much larger historical sociological discussion. Not every failure of an opera company is a failure of the system. Some represent a failure of practitioners to navigate the changing environment. Opera is becoming a far more complicated, a far more nuanced business than ever before. Staff members across the field need to learn best practices from one another. They need to share ideas, share strategies that are worth exploring. We need to provide professional development in specific areas so our staff members can develop these skills. 

NP: Which is why we both run these slightly different skills development programs? 
MS: Those are primarily for younger people coming into the field or rising in the field. Even the senior staff currently employed needs to keep their skills sharp in a world that is changing faster than we wish. The skills will be applied differently in Paris than they are in Geneva or London or New York or San Francisco. But the fundamental understandings of market dynamics, of social media, of research, all of these things are basic skills that we must share across the ocean. 

NP: Would it be beneficial to send Americans to our Opera Management Course and Europeans to your Leadership Intensive? 

MS: It’s certainly at the top of the list of possibilities here at OPERA America. In being exposed to a different system you gain new ideas as well as perspective on your own system. I find that I come back from European meetings able to articulate American strategies and practices more clearly because I have come to understand them in contrast to a different system. So yes, I think trans-Atlantic exchanges among our forums, both with established practitioners and among our young administrator training programs would be very beneficial. 

NP: What is the state of American opera?
MS: When writing a recent message to the field, I listed a number of premieres of American operas being given by large and small companies. I felt that my message lacked substance about artistic achievement outside the arena of new American work. Through my research, I found that it was difficult to come across an opera company – large or small – that isn’t doing American work. I have learned that opera companies are finding it difficult to market unknown 19th century opera, like some of the lesser Verdi titles, or some of the Bel Canto works. American operas have living composers and librettists who can come into the city. The libretto may be based on a short story, a novel or a film that has resonance. It’s easier to produce an American opera than I masnadieri.

NP: Do you reckon that it makes more sense to promote titles, whether it's Rigoletto or Silent Night, than to promote the generic opera brand? Is that a fruitful route to go down, or not?
MS: What a fascinating question. I think the brand of opera is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it evokes stereotypes of being long, old, boring and somehow inaccessible. On the other hand, it evokes images of glamour and a place to dress up. There’s both an allure to some of those stereotypic images and something off-putting. We are conflicted about what the image is. What is the brand we should promote? In raising money, we promote the wonderful benefits that accrue to major patrons. And yet we also want to make people understand that opera speaks about universal stories in compelling musical and theatrical terms. Opera companies themselves are at the root of the conflict over brand opera. So yes, I think it is important to work at changing the perception of brand opera and making it more consistent.

NP: I was thinking about our similar but slightly different campaigns: your National Opera Week, our European Opera Days, our attempt to launch this European Opera Digital Platform, your bold creation of the National Opera Center. These are not titles, are they? They're promotional initiatives. 
MS: Your first European Opera Days came before our National Opera Week and that was one of the wonderful initiatives from Opera Europa that inspired us here at OPERA America. Both these efforts help us convey the accessibility of opera. In terms of the National Opera Center, it is not associated with our work in promoting opera. Rather, it is an element of our strategy to help our members in very tangible ways. The Opera Center responds to the needs of our members for suitable space in which to rehearse, audition and make recordings. It has improved the working conditions for opera companies and artists, and supports the entire creative enterprise. For the public, we offer a variety of programs here, all of which are livestreamed Audition Recital Hall.

We now have more than 5,000 people a month visiting the Opera Center for auditions, recitals, rehearsals, readings of new works, meetings. We are really packed in the afternoons and evenings throughout the traditional fall opera audition season. Off-season, a wonderful array of  instrumental and theatre companies use the facility. We have twenty-six teachers who now teach here on a regular basis and many who come on a casual basis. So, the Opera Center is really more than a facility. It has become a place where people run into colleagues and friends. There is a reunion every day. It’s a home for the industry and we are particularly delighted when Opera Europa members take advantage of the services that are offered.

NP: The dates of our next conferences in Madrid and Washington coincide. We didn't plan it like that, but can we make an opportunity out of it?
MS: This is a chance for us to use technology to connect our entire memberships. In terms of illustrating our unity and the potential for increased exchange of ideas, we really should take full advantage of it. 

NP: The danger is we talk about cooperation and partnerships, and it remains as talk. You and I are concerned somehow to turn that into reality. I guess it means acknowledging both where we’re going in different ways and where there is overlap and synergy. How may we do it practically and effectively? 
MS: One avenue might simply be to offer travel subsidies. For our specialty forums, OPERA America offers travel subsidies to our members, through which we underwrite transit and accommodation of at least one staff member from a company to attend. It has resulted in a high level of participation. If we could find an international corporation that would be interested in visibility in the opera field on both sides of the Atlantic, we could similarly offer travel subsidies to Europeans who wish to come to an OPERA America forum or our annual conference, or to Americans who wish to go to an Opera Europa forum or conference. We would create the basis for much more exchange. We would ask them to prepare a short report upon their return, just so we know what they learned and what they gained from the international experience. I think it could be operationalised easily. We should start by seeing where corporate support is in common – perhaps an accounting firm or a bank that supports both European and American opera companies. A modest grant could stimulate a significant exchange.