San Diego Spotlight : Opera Struggles to Stay Center Stage in Recession

Judging from the record number of opera productions in the United States and the number of operas broadcast on television, one might all too easily conclude that 1991 has been a banner year for this specialized arena of the music industry. Opera companies' balance sheets, however, tell a different story.

"We are just beginning to measure the realities of this recession on opera companies," said Marc Scorca, chief executive officer of Opera America, based in Washington. "The first half of our work (on Opera America's annual statistical survey) reveals that deficits have been registered by 50% of the opera companies in the U.S. . . . For opera, the pendulum swings from good to bad over the course of a number of years. The pendulum right now is at a bad year, not a historically bad year--just a bad year."

As head of Opera America, a national association of opera company directors and other opera professionals, Scorca has his finger on the pulse of the opera industry. From Jan. 15-19, about 300 delegates will descend on San Diego for Opera America's annual conference at the downtown Omni Hotel. Several events at the conference are tailored to help opera companies solve their financial problems: seminars on upgrading donors, "stalking major gifts" and using direct mail to raise cash.

Scorca visited San Diego in mid-December to discuss the conference with Ian Campbell, general director of San Diego Opera, which will host the Opera America conference. In an interview in Campbell's office, Scorca pointed out that opera companies adjust to hard economic times more readily than symphony orchestras do. Not only are an orchestra's fixed costs much higher, but opera companies can easily downsize their artistic product.

"Orchestras must maintain a fixed unit of musicians, usually contracted year-round, that cannot be easily reduced. In opera, we have maintained fiscal stability while dealing with the challenges of a recession by incurring what I call 'artistic deficits.' "

Scorca explained that opera companies, which have experimented with new and unusual repertory that is usually more costly to mount and always less impressive at the ticket office, find it expedient to substitute more familiar fare to balance the books. Instead of building new sets for a production, sets are rented from another company. Planners delay presenting a composer's grand opera with large cast and chorus, and substitute instead a chamber opera by the same composer that uses only a few singers and no chorus.

But, although companies are resorting to this downsizing, Opera America does not stand idly by tabulating the sorry artistic decline. Under Opera America's newly instituted $5-million Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Opera for a New America program, companies will receive financial assistance to develop and present new opera. Among the fund's current projects is "Tanya," an opera by Anthony Davis based on the Patty Hearst abduction. According to Scorca, "Tanya" will be presented by Philadelphia's American Music Theatre Festival this spring.

"The program funds efforts of member companies to develop new operas that are contemporary in their content, musical vocabulary, and that have a good chance of reaching new audiences, those that have not felt any identity with (Verdi's) Violetta Valery, but might feel some identity with a new work based on an event from recent history."

Over the last decade, Opera America programs have given financial assistance to 35 new opera projects, including John Adams' highly successful "Nixon in China" and his recent opus, "The Death of Klinghoffer." Scorca pointed out that many operas must be staged to discover the two or three that are worthy of remaining in the standard repertory.

"We too easily forget that, in 1786, the year that Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro' premiered, across Europe, another thousand operas were given their first performance. But we remember just one. In that era, of course, the sheer output of operas by European composers was a workshop process all its own. So today, we're going to have to fund a lot of works you'll never hear about again in order to find an opera that will have a real place in the canon of American opera."

New operas, especially those based on events known to the public, may be the route to bringing new audiences into American opera houses. Changing opera as well as its perception is one of Scorca's main goals at Opera America.

"We are stuck with viewing opera as being inaccessible, revolving around 19th-Century characters, sung in foreign languages in outmoded musical styles. But every culture tells stories, and every culture enhances those stories with melody, rhythm, movement and props. Opera is merely a part of this universal musical-theatrical expression of mankind's problems, fears, and triumphs."

They write the songs. Many budding piano students have learned, or have attempted to learn, Beethoven's "Fur Elise." Now, they will have an opportunity to set words to this classic piano piece.

The San Diego Symphony has launched a pilot educational program aimed at students in grades five to eight in 15 city and county schools. After the students are given a guide to classical music and concert protocol, they work on their lyrics for "Fur Elise." Entries are due Jan. 6, after which the symphony education department will pick a single winner.

The winning student will be announced at the orchestra's young people's concerts March 4-5 at Copley Symphony Hall. That student will receive a compact disc player and starter set of classical CDs, and the student's school will receive $500 to be used for music education.

CRITIC'S CHOICE

RISING STAR TO SHINE IN EL CAJON RECITAL

Up and coming American tenor Richard Sanchez will give a solo recital at 7 p.m. today in El Cajon's East County Performing Arts Center. A resident artist with Omaha Opera, Sanchez has sung with Houston Grand Opera, the Aspen Music Festival and the Eastman Opera Theatre.

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