An outlier company?
The success of Santa Fe may be an outlier. Smaller and regional companies envy its audience, its location, its carefully tended brand and its history of financial stability. Still, how does one square the sense that most opera companies are heading to that “new normal” of endless repetitions of a handful of Puccini, Mozart and Verdi standards with the success of a company such as Santa Fe?
Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, says he admires Santa Fe as much as the next professional. But he doesn’t accept the premise of much of the grumbling about the dumbing down of American opera.
“In my view it is spurious,” said Scorca, of the perception that companies are relying more and more on a handful of repertory standards to get by. “It isn’t supported by the data.”
Scorca’s data include input from a host of small and experimental groups across the country that may be invisible to the serious opera lover who makes the mistake of focusing only on established, name-brand companies. In D.C., Scorca points to the presence of groups such as Opera Lafayette, UrbanArias and Washington Concert Opera as essential complements to the Kennedy Center’s Washington National Opera (which is opting for dull repertoire and a lamentable inclusion of a musical this coming season).
“For the opera lover,” Scorca said, “it is an absolute buffet; the options are greater and the art form is more alive.”
But when Scorca cheerfully announced that “the days of old-fashioned, imitative grand opera are really done” — by which he means the days of most large companies presenting a regular diet of classic, large-format 19th-century opera in the old stand-and-sing style — serious opera lovers may get nervous. No one wants “old-fashioned” or “imitative” work, but there is an operatic experience, essential to many lovers of the art form, that only large companies that cater to a “sophisticated” and “dedicated” audience can provide.
It isn’t hard to square Scorca’s celebration of increasing operatic diversity with the fact that only a handful of established American opera companies are doing great work today. Opera, like so much else in American culture, is trending toward a two-tier system, in which serious opera lovers will flock (if they can, and tickets are expensive) to elite companies such as Santa Fe, while the rest of the opera-going public will make do with dutiful productions of “Carmen,” unwelcome intrusions of Broadway and high-definition broadcasts to the local movie theater, baseball stadium or city park.
Included among the speakers at last week’s news conference was Don Randel, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. His remarks, which received a vigorous ovation, sounded as if he had emerged from a time warp, speaking the art-positive language of the last century, before the conservative political assault on arts funding and the disastrous decision by many arts leaders to forsake their duty to lead taste. Randel acknowledged “the great pressure to move toward more conservative programming,” but he positioned the Mellon Foundation athwart that trend, defending art and opera as essential to the health of the nation.
“We are, as a nation, disinvesting in the arts and culture,” Randel said. Even as other foundations turn away from the arts to more obvious social priorities such as health care and education, the Mellon Foundation will keep supporting art for art’s sake, not because of its educational role or the “economic multipliers” it brings to communities.
“We take it as axiomatic that these things are fundamentally important,” said Randel, in an interview after the news conference.
It was a rousing endorsement of high art without pandering or apologetics, fit to warm the heart of any opera lover. Santa Fe’s season proved, once again, that it’s possible for summer opera to be a haven for listeners who want to engage with the depth and breadth of the form, rather than escape into lighter fare and trivialities.
At 11:20 one evening last week, the audience was in its seats, riveted by David Alden’s production of “Maometto II,” an opera that would be easy to caricature as melodrama. But Alden, and every singer onstage, took the work seriously, without a trace of modern irony. And two things were clear: What an astonishing amount of culture, history and sheer human endeavor are embodied in a piece such as this; and how rare it is that most people will see the best justification of art, which is art done exceptionally well, without condescension or embarrassment.