State of the Opera
by Marc Scorca
The following essay was commissioned from Marc Scorca, President and CEO of Opera America. He was asked to reflect on the future of the opera, and to explain why, in his opinion, opera is still a successful form of cultural expression.
Contrary to popular belief, the opera audience has been getting younger and younger. Between 1982 and 1992, the U.S. opera audience
grew by almost 25 percent, according to the Survey of Public
Participation in the Arts, conducted by the National Endowment for
the Arts in association with the Bureau of the Census. This trend
continued through 1997, when opera's audience grew by another 12.5
percent, more than any other art form.
In fact, opera enthusiasts' numbers among audiences in the 18- to
24- year old age group have grown at a remarkable rate. Between 1982
and 1992, the number of 18- to 24- year-olds attending opera
performances in the US increased by 18 percent, even though the
number of individuals in that age category declined by 16 percent
during the same period. What are the reasons behind this explosion of
interest in opera? They are simultaneously surprising and
Opera resonates with our brave new multimedia world.
Increasingly, the world around us requires us to deal with words,
sounds, and pictures all at the same time. Opera is growing in North
America because of its unique resonance with the contemporary
multimedia aesthetic. When we watch and listen to the news on
television, we read sports scores or weather reports across the
bottom of the screen, usually while talking on the telephone. This
multimedia world provides a training ground for the
aesthetic complexity of opera.
Opera has become infused into the popular culture.
We are surrounded by the sounds of opera. Academy-award winning
movies have woven opera excerpts into their stories as important
thematic elements. Popular artists such as Aretha Franklin and
Michael Bolton have added opera music to their repertoire.
Innumerable television commercials have used opera music and settings
in recent years to sell their products, bringing the sound of the art
form to millions of people who otherwise might never think of
listening to it. In addition, groups like The Three Tenors, composed
of Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carrera and Placido Domingo, have sold
millions of records and taken opera to arenas never before expected,
like Dodger Stadium.
Projected and seatback translations have overcome the
Opera is truly an international art, and more and more opera
companies are choosing to perform the classics in their original
language. Not a problem: Surtitles and seat-back translations have
become so ubiquitous that any opera-goer newcomer or
aficionado can enjoy an opera without the barrier of a foreign
Trends in contemporary American composition are more
accessible to audiences.
Whereas contemporary music used to be characterized as dissonant
and challenging to the average listener, today's composers are
creating scores that are being received as both musically appealing
and dramatically effective. New American operas that are named after
literary works, current events, or current personalities, such as
Nixon in China and Harvey Milk, reveal to the public that opera is
about their world.
Education and community programs have helped to build an
appreciation for the art form and increase audiences.
Opera companies have been uniquely dedicated to education programs
for a full generation. Perhaps it is because we are so eager to
overcome the negative stereotypes about opera that our education
programs have been animated by near-messianic zeal.
The development of the Internet offers a new opportunity to reach
young and adult audiences with educational material that helps them
to enjoy opera, regardless of their level of experience.
The Future is Bright.
Opera continues to provide an artistic prism with which to view
our increasingly complex world. With a growing audience, an expanding
repertoire, and ever-improving artistic quality, opera promises to be
a vital form of cultural expression for American audiences into the
21st century and beyond.