Photo Dario Acosta
Risë Stevens singing Carmen
Marc Scorca: The NEA Opera Honors is just a fantastic program. Explicitly it is to celebrate lifetime achievement in opera and the recipients have deserved it a hundred times over. For each of the honorees we do a video tribute which are available on the NEA web site and the video tributes always involve interviewing ten or so people for each honoree from which we then create the tribute. This has become a fantastic oral history of American opera. If you look at the nearly 160 interviews that we've done, each of them between half an hour and an hour and a half, they tell the story of the development of this art form in the United States. Just this year alone Robert Ward is honored and Bob is now 94 years old and when we went to interview him we were talking about his music education at Eastman in the 1930s, how he went in to World War II and the musical programs of the army and how he learned how to compose for jazz band in the army. We heard about his studying at Tanglewood from Paul Hindemith and sitting next to Leonard Bernstein who was also studying there with Aaron Copland, a great story of American opera. Risë Stevens. She's now 98 and she went away in the 1930s to study opera and performance in Prague. And experiencing an American abroad in Czechoslovakia before the Anschluss with Hitler and in all of the people who have told the stories about Risë or Bob Ward or Speight Jenkins, John Conklin we through these subordinate interviews are documenting the way the field came into its own, especially after World War II.
We heard 2011 NEA Opera Honoree Risë Stevens singing Carmen followed by the President and CEO of Opera America, Marc Scorca. Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works, I’m your host, Josephine Reed.
All eyes are on the 2011 NEA Opera Honorees who are receiving their awards tonight at 7:30 in Washington DC’s Sidney Harman Hall. It ‘s going to be webcast live, so you can join us by going to arts.gov and clicking on Opera Honors. Our partner in the Awards Ceremony is Opera America, a nonprofit service organization for the opera industry. Now celebrating its 40th year, Opera America advocates on behalf of the arts in general and opera in particular. It gathers best practices, data and research to help opera companies and producers be as efficient, effective, and creative as possible. Marc Scorca has been at the helm of Opera America for 20 years, so it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about the art form and about our honorees. I spoke to Marc Scorca in New York City and began our conversation by observing that when people think of opera, they tend to think of it as expensive: expensive to produce and expensive to attend. According to Marc, that’s both true and not.
Marc Scorca: Yes, it is very expensive to produce. George Bernard Shaw said that opera was the most expensive invention of man second only to warfare and it is by virtue of just the small army of people on stage or behind the scenes every night to produce the performance for that audience. You have to think about the orchestral musicians, the chorusers, the soloists, the scenery and costumes, the wig people, costume people, all the technicians. It really is a small army of people backstage every night. Necessarily then it is expensive. People sometimes think that all the tickets to opera are necessarily expensive and that's part of the stereotype that's wrong. Lots of opera companies have tickets that are at very affordable prices so if people are curious about opera I suggest they explore, and there is going to be a reasonably priced opportunity to experiment with it and to come to enjoy it.
Jo Reed: And let's talk about developing new work because I think the other stereotype that there is about opera is that it's all music from the past and Lord knows there is glorious, glorious music that we've been very fortunate to have inherited, but there is also extremely wonderful modern music, current music, and Opera America has really been committed to developing that.
Marc Scorca: Well, what you say is true. Opera is an art form. It's one of the few art forms that was actually invented. Years ago, Ccnturies ago people danced around fires, people danced to keep warm, instrumentalists, people blew on reeds that they could find in a meadow, that there are lots of art forms that just grew up completely organically. Singing is completely natural but this notion of opera actually was developed by committee, the Florentine Camerata at the end of the 1500s. They were seeking to reinvent, to revive what they thought was Greek tragedy where there was a chorus and people declaimed their lines so it was a conscious invention of an art form. Thus it is a European invention and much of the core repertoire that we know is from Italy first and then France and Germany. There's an English opera tradition as well in many other European countries. So yes, there is truth to the fact that opera is a European art form. However, beginning about 50 years ago we began to see the emergence of an American repertoire, and if you think of Porgy and Bess it's probably one of the first operas to really make it into the American opera and to the international opera canon. It was back in the early 1980s where the opera industry was actually gaining its legs here in North America, but everyone realized that if opera were to just be a museum, a European museum art form, that it was unlikely that it would connect in any kind of meaningful way to an American audience. The Opera America and the NEA working in partnership really decided to take this on and it's an example of strategic philanthropy, and in the 1980s we began a program called then Opera for the '80s and Beyond. We had funding from a number of important foundations to create a fund that would support the creation and production of new American opera. It was just at that time that the NEA launched the New American Works project of the then Opera Music Theater program. Together, we in the late 1980s, early 1990s were probably spending about two million dollars a year to help opera companies offset the costs of producing new opera. Now what are those costs? Opera is intrinsically expensive as we just talked about but new opera involves commissioning fees for the composers, copying costs for the scores, more rehearsal time for the chorus, the orchestra that don't know the pieces, always require new sets and costumes because the opera has never been done before. So there is another huge set of exceptional costs associated with doing new opera, and on the other hand there is box office risk. Audience may be enthusiastic about coming to Carmen or La Boheme or The Barber of Seville, but if there is a title they're never heard of before by a composer they've never heard of before there can be some reticence on the part of the traditional opera audience to buy tickets. Our funding helped to offset the exceptional costs. We wanted, we had the theory that if we helped pay for the exceptional costs associated with doing new work that companies might do it more readily because they didn't have to either take on the box office risk or go for that extra philanthropy and it worked. It's an example of strategic funding really working. So in the early 1980s there were virtually no new opera produced on American opera stages and by the middle of the 1990s 20 or 25 new works were being produced every year on the stages of our opera companies. That continues today. Doing new work as part of- if not every season every other season, every third season, doing second productions of works that have already premiered has become a part of the life of an American opera company today. So we do have now quite an extensive American opera literature, those operas frequently based on great American literature or films or plays that people might know or just might recognize as part of the American cultural scene, and there is an audience for these new works. Some of them are the traditional opera lovers. Some are people who enjoy seeing new works, enjoy being surpRisëd by what they encounter in the opera house, so we have created the NEA in partnership with Opera America, a sea change in the course of American opera.
Jo Reed: And there has also been a burgeoning of opera companies during that time as well. Is that not the case?
Marc Scorca: Absolutely. In 1970 when Opera America was established we were started by 17 opera companies which represented a significant percentage of the American opera industry. Today virtually every major city has not only one company but two and three and four companies. In fact, the big development of the last decade I would say is the establishment of lots of artist-driven, smaller creative spontaneous opera companies around the country and a lot of these do new works.
Jo Reed: I know Opera America is very interested in collaborative efforts. Talk about that and how important that is to the development of new work.
Marc Scorca: It's so important to the production of opera in general and the production of opera. When Opera America was established in 1970 as I say by 17 opera companies these were companies that were working independently and that had sets and costumes in warehouses stored in Kansas City or Oklahoma or New Orleans or Binghamton, New York. These companies didn't know what inventory of sets and costumes existed in the warehouses of their fellow opera companies so Opera America really started with a coproduction intention. If companies could know what scenery or costumes exist elsewhere, they could borrow them, rent them, purchase them, and it wasn't long before instead of just borrowing or purchasing or renting sets they said, "Well, let's build some new sets together." So coproduction was a part of what made Opera America work in its early years. Coproduction helps companies either save money because several investors are investing in the same physical production or with a, the same expenditure you can build more lavish, more beautiful scenery so that's within the opera coproduction realm alone. When it comes to new works having several producers of course does spread out the financial burden, which is good, but essential in new works is the opportunity for the composer to make some changes, adjustments after the premiere. We don't have in opera the way we have in Broadway tryouts, previews. When an opera premieres it's probably the first time the creative team has actually seen that work in front of an audience, the first time. So maybe if you are some rare genius like Mozart you can get it right first time out but for a lot of people making adjustments, trimming, adding music if you need it for a transition, perhaps the opera was composed in three acts when it should- really feels better in two acts, you discover that at the premiere and in the subsequent performances. If several companies are producing the work over the next several years, there is an opportunity for the creative team to go in and adjust the work so the chances are that after a fourth or fifth iteration in front of different audiences, different music critics with some adjustments that the work can emerge in its finished state. So coproduction is very important from an economic point of view but as well as from a creative point of view for new works.
Jo Reed: You are also very committed to audience development. Tell me some of your strategies about doing that.
Marc Scorca: Well, audience development was obligatory to our survival if you go back 25, 30 years. Today when opera audiences go to the theater they inevitably will see that there is a screen above the stage where the translation is projected or in some theaters there is a screen in the back of the seat in front of the audience member and you can follow along in the translation. Thirty years ago before there were any of these translation systems audiences were going to an art form that was theatrical in nature where they didn't speak the language of the theater. You wouldn't go see a movie without- a foreign movie without subtitles. It's hard to think that you would go to a- to Germany and see a play in Berlin and not speak German. What's that experience going to be like? So opera companies have a long tradition of introducing audiences to opera largely rooted in this time from before the translation systems when you really had to explain what the story was about to people who didn't speak the language. So there's a long tradition of audience education in opera. Today, and one of the things that we love to talk about, is that opera is a multimedia art form in a multimedia world. I think that's one of the reasons that we have such creative energy and audience curiosity about it. The building blocks of opera, words, music and images, are the building blocks of the internet or the building blocks of so much popular entertainment around us. So opera has the potential to thrive in this multimedia world because it is a multimedia art form, a fusion of many of the art forms. This gives us great opportunity to talk to audiences about music or about the story of the opera, the lives of the composers and librettists. We believe that opera can be enjoyed by going to the theater, sitting back and just experiencing it. We also believe that audience members can have a deeper, more rewarding experience if they know more about the background so everything from these days web-based study guides and distance learning and podcasts are being done by all of our opera companies to help audiences feel comfortable when they go to the opera house and they experience this somewhat larger than life overwhelming art form.
Jo Reed: The other thing I was actually thinking, Marc, is the heightened emotion of operas really seems very much in sync with our times.
Marc Scorca: Absolutely, and if you think about the personalities of our superstar film stars or popular culture stars the opera characters have the same larger than life personalities. I think there's a real resonance with the world we live in between the opera characters and stories and the world around us. It was Peter Sellers this summer, I was in Santa Fe, and he spoke about the fact that operas dramatize all of our emotions if we walk to the fine line between sanity and insanity. When we are angry or jealous or upset or feel betrayed or feel madly in love we contain it because we have to go on with our lives. In opera there is no such boundary and good operas explore those emotions at the extremes that we don't dare go to in our real lives.
Jo Reed: And that's part of the appeal.
Marc Scorca: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: Tell me what drew you to opera. Tell me about your background.
Marc Scorca: Well, I come to it from a family of opera lovers. My grandparents were married here in New York in 1912 and they were great opera lovers so when I was a kid there were wonderful stories about seeing Caruso and all of the great singers from the Golden Age. And my grandparents would tell me the stories and we listened to recordings at home and of course the Saturday afternoon broadcast. We were an absolutely irreligious family unless you thought of the Saturday afternoon broadcast as our religion so it was when the family would gather and listen, and my grandparents were intent that there would be no childhood noise in the house. So I just grew up loving the stories and loving the music. When I was a kid--I was brought up here in New York--I asked my parents to take me to my first opera and it was after seeing some opera excerpts on Ed Sullivan show when the variety shows on television had opera, and I remember seeing Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne do the great Norma Duet and it was after that I said to my parents, "I really want to go." So it's Ed Sullivan show and then a whole lot of family stories and it was accessible here in New York so I started to go.
Jo Reed: What was your background? When you were in school did you study music?
Marc Scorca: I studied music and history. I discovered when I went to school that I was at heart a cultural historian in that I love history but the way I like to study history is not through wars and not through politics necessarily but I like to study history through art. You can learn so much about an historic period by reading the literature, the plays, looking at the visual arts, and opera, again this complex art form, is a wonderful way to study history because inevitably opera is about some preexisting text that illuminates a political situation or a social situation in the period of either an historic period or the composer in his day has adjusted it slightly to make it relevant to what's going on in Italy or France or Germany or the United States in their work. So I'm a cultural historian at heart and opera is the document I like to study most to learn about history.
Jo Reed: I’d like to turn our attention to the 2011 NEA Opera Honorees and I’d like begin with soprano, Risë Stevens. She’s 98 years old.
Marc Scorca: Ninety-eight years old and as gracious and warm today as she has ever been, a remarkable lady. There is a great tradition of American opera singing in the United States. We have wonderful conservatories, great universities because there is a smaller native American opera. American opera singers are particularly versatile. They're trained to sing in French or Italian or German unlike European singers who generally are trained mostly in their own language and in the literature of their own country. Risë really was a pioneer in being an outstanding American singer, and for the scholars listening to this there are certainly some great examples of American singers before her, but Risë Stevens really began the tradition of international stardom born at home, trained at home at Juilliard. She did some training in Europe but then came back to the United States and had a fantastic career that spanned the opera stage, film, television—
Jo Reed: Radio.
Marc Scorca: …radio absolutely. She was just a real polymath when it came to introducing her beautiful voice to audiences that still think of her as the great Carmen interpreter of their memories.
Up and hot - Risë Stevens singing Carmen, then under…
She then went on to really oversee the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions and to be an ambassador on behalf of the Metropolitan Opera, a great lady of the stage but also a great lady behind the scenes.
Jo Reed: She's credited with having saved The Metropolitan Opera in 1961. Tell us what happened.
Marc Scorca: There is a wonderful story. There was a labor dispute and there was going to be a strike and Risë had just retired from the stage and was just a really famous American cultural icon, and she wrote to President Kennedy asking for intervention to help solve the labor dispute and succeeded in bringing negotiators to the table and in fact they went on without a strike.
Jo Reed: And she also was a real advocate for developing talent.
Marc Scorca: Absolutely. Famous across the country are The Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions. They still hold them. There are preliminary auditions in so many cities and then regional finals and finally the final competition at The Metropolitan Opera House, and Risë for a number of years was really the person who oversaw that program.
Jo Reed: We have John Conklin who is a stage designer as well as a costume designer.
Marc Scorca: As well as a great teacher. John is the most culturally literate human being I have ever known. He is a master of literature and design and music. He can draw cultural references across all the genres, across all the periods. He's a brilliant, brilliant man. His productions are wonderfully creative, fanciful, insightful. He as a teacher has inspired generations of designers not to just design but to inquire and invent and interpret and challenge audiences. John is a man of great warmth, a mentor to many and a friend to many.
Jo Reed: He also has designed for opera but also for theater and for ballet. He really looks at the performing arts in- with a very collaborative eye.
Jo Reed: That’s so interesting because John Conklin signals that cultural literacy with his designs. His designs are conceptual rather literal. He always seems to be giving us the big picture.
Marc Scorca: Absolutely. You may see a contemporary opera of John but there will be baroque frames or chairs or things that get pulled from every period, and not just randomly but purposefully to illuminate a moment, to illuminate a thread of the story. Yes, he just borrows and pulls and is so inventive in the way he puts elements together.
Jo Reed: And color used very unexpectedly I think.
Marc Scorca: Absolutely, and when you go to his apartment and if people watch the video tribute on the NEA web site the opening of the video tribute--I can let you know because I've been watching it develop--scans his apartment and you see the books and books and books that are collected as part of his personal library.
Jo Reed: John’s also designed for theater and for ballet. He really doesn’t want to restrict himself.
Marc Scorca: Absolutely, and I feel terribly guilty for not knowing his output as much in theater and ballet as I do in opera, but some of everyone's favorite productions will be John Conklin productions.
Jo Reed: Another 90-year-old is the composer, Robert Ward.
Marc Scorca: Bob Ward is such a gentleman. He is truly a remarkable man, he- absolutely a composer and instructor at Juilliard. He ran a publishing company for about ten years before he was called down to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to be the second chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts. So an artist, a businessman, a teacher, someone who is just an eternal optimist. It's so lovely to chat with this 94-year-old man who was just commissioned last year and is working on a new piece and he just believes in the future of American opera.
The Crucible warm, under
real landmark piece, an opera called The Crucible based on the Arthur Miller play, and again a wonderful window into American history. That's why I think opera is such a great learning tool because in looking at the source material, The Crucible written at the time of the McCarthy hearings and then Bob Ward taking it on as a great text for opera all through the window of the Salem witch trials, another way to study history.
…and then up and hot…
Marc Scorca: So Bob wrote The Crucible. It has become a pillar of American opera performed by so many opera companies and universities and conservatories, a real great piece.
Jo Reed: And our fourth and final honoree, Speight Jenkins. And Speight is a general director.
Marc Scorca: He is. Speight's a kind of general director by accident. Speight too he's so brilliant in his encyclopedic knowledge of opera. He wasn't a general director who started a small company and then climbed the ladder to big companies. Speight was immediately before being the general director of the Seattle Opera was a music critic here in New York, The New York Post, a very, very well-regarded critic. He was always a Wagner expert from childhood. He lived the Ring Cycle. He loved Wagner. So Speight came to New York under all kinds of pretense. He first went to medical school but that didn't work out. He then went to law school at Columbia and the reason he came to New York for medical school and law school is so he could be close to The Metropolitan Opera to see performances, and he went on and was a writer, commentator, critic and he was in Seattle lecturing on Wagner because Seattle Opera was famous for its Ring Cycle; the company's founder, Glynn Ross, had been a great fan of the Ring Cycle. And when he was out there lecturing someone said, "Have you ever thought about being our next general director?" They were looking for a general director to succeed Glynn Ross and Speight in 1983 was appointed to the position and discovered himself to be a great general director and one of those rare general directors who finds his home in the art form. He's not a businessman who runs the opera company from the budget; he is an artist who runs the company by really producing outstanding art by overseeing it. He believes he represents his audience when he's in the rehearsal hall and if it doesn't make sense to him it's not going to make sense to his audience. He is at the top of the stairs at every performance greeting the audience. He does talk-backs every single night after every performance. He is the face of the Seattle Opera and when you talk about community engagement Seattle Opera is very active. As cultural advocates within Seattle it is certainly a pillar institution of the cultural community and they don't retreat behind this great reputation but they are out in the community serving audiences but also just being very good cultural citizens around the city. Speight is a model general director.
Jo Reed: Okay, Marc, what can we expect for and from opera in the twenty-first century?
Marc Scorca: There are so many different ways, and again because of opera's fundamental complexity that it is theater and music and words and images on the one hand I think we can look at more media being brought in to the opera house in terms of sophisticated projections. We also are seeing from a lot of these smaller companies I referenced earlier where small spontaneous companies are popping up that we'll see opera in unusual places, produced in unusual ways. I always complained that opera seemed to have the edifice complex, that opera seemed always to be performed just in the opera house, but now a lot of these smaller companies are producing in lofts, warehouses, churches, armories. Opera can be very inventive in terms of what's produced, how it's produced, where it's produced, and while there will be always be that wonderful opera in the opera house I think we're going to see a proliferation of different treatments of opera in different kinds of venues, a different scale, new works and old works, more multimedia brought into it because for scenery do you build hard scenery or do projections. We're doing projected translations right now but what other information might be available to influence and inform the opera experience. Just last night I went to a new works reading over at Lincoln Center and all of the artists' bios were accompanied by that new kind of grid where you can scan it into your phone and get to the web site of the artist. I don't want to say that every opera performance is going to be like that but I think new technology and multimedia will further enhance this already established multimedia art form.
Jo Reed: Marc Scorca, thank you so much.
Marc Scorca: My great pleasure. Thanks for having me today.
Jo Reed: Thank you. That was the president and CEO of Opera America, Marc Scorca. You can find the Tributes to all our opera honorees at arts.gov—just click on Opera Honors.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from The Crucible by Robert Ward, used courtesy of Albany Records.
Excerpts from Carmen by Georges Bizet, featuring Risë Stevens, used courtesy of Showcase Productions and VAIMusic.COM
And courtesy of PBS.
Excerpts from Wagner’s Das Rheingold by Richard, Robert Spano conducting, Speight Jenkins, general director, used courtesy of Seattle Opera.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the itunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, Jazz Master Jimmy Heath!
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Marc Scorca celebrates opera in America and the 2011 NEA Opera Honorees. [31:02]