The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic Marc Scorca, President and CEO of OPERA America, discussed the rapid onset of the pandemic.
Marc Scorca, President and CEO of OPERA America
Interviewed August 12, 2020
TB: First off, I always like to start with something positive. What is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
MS: One of the amazing parts about this remote work over the last five months—we’ve now been out of the National Opera Center for just over 150 days—is that I’ve never spent five months at home, working really hard but cooking for myself and not being jet-lagged. I’ve been the President of OPERA America for 30 years and I spend my life on airplanes and in hotels. So actually having some time on the weekends to go out and weed the garden and water the plants, I would say that is great. It is the continued discovery of domestic habits I didn’t know I had.
TB: One of the things that you already mentioned was that you have been working with OPERA America for over 30 years. What first got you into this business?
MS: [Laughter] Well, I came out of the womb and someone slapped me on the behind and said ‘opera’. I like to tell the story that my grandparents were married in 1912 in New York. My grandfather was a great opera fan and my grandmother quickly came to love it. But my grandmother liked Donizetti, Verdi, and Bellini, she didn’t like new opera. For her that meant Puccini. She found Puccini to be vulgar, violent, and sexual. She just didn’t like it.
My grandfather came home one night soon after they were married and said, “Okay, get dressed. I have tickets to see Aida with Caruso and Farrar.” She got dressed and all excited. When they got to the opera house, it was Manon Lescaut [Puccini]. He had lied to her in order to get her to go. But it was as Caruso jumped from the dock onto the boat to go with Manon Lescaut that my grandmother fell in love with Puccini’s music. So when that is the story of my grandparents’ recreational activity, I think I come to opera naturally.
TB: That is a great story. Diving into the pandemic, can you back up in time and describe where you were and how you first realized that your life was going to be affected by the pandemic?
MS: Certainly, I was aware—as we all were—reading the news that a virus was spreading. And we began to watch the numbers in Europe with great alarm. There was one particular [incident]—I think it was an attorney in New Rochelle, who was diagnosed as the first case—that was reported in New York City. We saw a cluster developing and thought, “This is something we really need to pay attention to.” We were extremely wary and observant about what was going on. My last trip out of town was on the 6th of March. We closed the National Opera Center on March 15. So, I would say from the very beginning of March, we were aware that this was going to be a significant global event that would have a direct impact on us in our field.
TB: Could you talk to me a bit about your view of the impact of this event? Because you have a very unique position where you see opera and the way that this is going to have an impact, especially in the longer term? Perhaps you want to first talk about the work that OPERA America has been doing over the last several months to help opera companies through what I think we can call the worst disaster that’s happened to opera in the last hundred years?
MS: I do wonder about the impact of this compared to the Great Depression or World War II but I’ll certainly give you that it is the worst thing that has happened to opera in the past 75 years. There you’ve got it hands down.
There are so many lenses from which to answer your question. First, the impact on opera companies is, of course, devastating. We began to do Zoom conference calls with every one of our networks (there are about a dozen of them). We do weekly, or now bi-weekly, video conferences to keep up with what is going on in every aspect of the field. When we began this the week of March 16, companies were thinking about cancelling their spring seasons. Then those were all cancelled. Festivals began thinking about when they would cancel. And then we got through that and companies with fall seasons began to think about when the trigger date was for them to cancel or postpone performances. So from an opera company constituency, the idea that they may go a full year (March 2020-March 2021) without performing in their traditional venues with their traditional repertoire, it is just completely up-ending.
For artists, we’ve been tracking the cancellation of thousands and thousands of contracts. And some companies have paid handsomely on those cancelled contracts, some have not. It depends on company conditions and other issues on a local basis. But for the artists in general, it has been devastating. Our industry is populated by people who work from contract to contract. So to have the loss of contracts due to force majeure is devastating to them, both on a personal and professional level as their career arcs are interrupted, as their progress from an artist training program to mainstage performance is interrupted. It has been as enormously destructive and traumatic for the individual artist as it has been for the opera company.
Our [opera] companies are intended to perform and to connect audiences to our art form. We have been largely deprived of that opportunity and it may be a year until we’re able to come back with some notion of normalcy. That said, as our companies have progressed rapidly from being producers of live performance to being producers of digital media content, it has been fascinating. And I hear about a lot of plans coming up for filming operas, doing them in sound studios with cameras. And doing distanced performances of particular repertoire, designing mobile stages, outdoor stages, and how to capture and engage the opera audience so that we maintain loyalty among our constituency.
So out of all of this is coming a lot of discovery about how to connect to audiences old and new, how to maintain loyalty, how to awaken curiosity, and how to further expand the definition of opera so that we understand it not only as a live performance experience in the theater but also as an art form that is created and performed for digital platforms.
TB: Before this interview, I was listening to your 2019 address on the opera world, where it stands, and what you’re looking towards in the future. It was a bit prophetic because you talked about looking at examining tradition, exploring business innovation, and deepening civic practice. Would you agree that these three things form pillars for the way that we are seeing opera companies moving forward?
MS: Absolutely. There is a continuum, in a way, for each of those dynamics. Opera has always been an innovative art form. The rate of innovation perhaps stalled in the middle of the 20th century. (World Wars and a Great Depression will do that.) We see at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, a burgeoning canon of new opera about subjects that resonate with the world around us, where the scope and style of composition is varied. So the understanding of what opera is and can be has been changing rapidly over the last 20-25 years and it has been very exciting.
This crisis is accelerating that inventiveness, which has become native to American opera. Opera companies have really been deepening their investment in civic practice over the last number of years. Recognizing that living in an opera bubble is not desirable in any number of ways, we want opera to matter to more people. We want opera to matter to our community. We want opera companies to be recognized as dynamic cultural citizens. We want people to support their local opera company, not necessarily because they love opera, but because they believe the opera company is essential to the health of their community.
Those are all the investments that were being made. But now more than ever, how do our opera companies matter to our communities? And how do we manifest that importance to our communities when we’re no longer able to convene people in rows in theaters on Friday and Saturday night? Those were important dynamics coming into the crisis and the rate of learning and experimentation has increased profoundly over the last five months.
TB: It really does seem as though we are seeing many things occurring that wouldn’t be without a pandemic. Let’s talk about the financial impact of this because I think that is one of the scariest and most troublesome aspects as we’re moving forward. Can you talk a bit about your view on how this has impacted financial security, not only of artists but of opera companies as well?
MS: Sure. And to start, I want to acknowledge the impact on artists because of the profound effects it has had on their lives. In terms of opera companies, I don’t think we should live in a fantasy world that pre-COVID was an economically secure time. Our opera companies for years have been dealing with rising costs, box office income that is flat at best, competition for contributed revenue, and more than ever, a dependence on major donors who are passionate about opera. The pre-COVID picture of the opera economy was not one of undiluted robustness.
Then you have this enormous interruption and our opera companies have stopped producing in their theaters. Although, they are increasingly producing digital content, they have stopped production in their theaters. So, some expenses of production—set and costume rental, transportation, and new productions—have been reduced. We just did a survey about the economic impact of COVID and the average fiscal year 2021 budget is 28.5% lower than the fiscal year 2020 budget.
At the same time, our opera companies have lost box office revenue. (Though there is great interest in beginning to experiment with charging for digital content as we’ve seen the Metropolitan Opera do with their recital programs in these last couple of weeks.)
As a result of shedding production-related expenses at a rate that is greater than the loss of box office income, our opera companies are holding tough at the moment. I have not heard of any closures. I have not heard members report that they are on the precipice of closing and declaring bankruptcy. I think our members are trying to walk the balance beam of lower production expenses and lower box office income. [They are asking,] “Can we maintain general loyalty through the next six months or a year until we are back to fuller scale production expenses and box office income?”
TB: What would you say is the hardest lesson that you’ve had to learn in this situation so far.
MS: If you’re asking me that through the lens of me, President of OPERA America, it has been a crash course in working remotely: maintaining administrative coherence, some sense of teamwork, maintaining a sense of purposefulness and momentum without having access to colleagues that stimulate and challenge us. These things form a daily crucible to make sure that we are doing the right thing in the right way. We’ve really had to learn how to stick together on behalf of opera and OPERA America as we are spread across North America. One of our senior staff is living at a family home in Mexico. I’m working remotely from Vermont. We have staff members in other cities as well. Yet, we have figured out how to work effectively. That’s been the big learning curve.
TB: Is there another lens that you want to talk about with that?
MS: I’d say another lens is the degree to which converting OPERA America from an organization that regularly convenes people, to an organization that serves the field through virtual means has created a new level of community that has been deeply rewarding. Traditionally, we have 500 people register for our annual conference and this year, we had over 2500 people register for the online conference. In the two or three months immediately after March 16th—when we started our video conferences—we had done hundreds of video conferences and webinars with well over 10,000 member engagements.
Our general directors, artistic directors, artistic administrators, production directors, development staff, marketing personnel, education and community program personnel, and everyone else across the board, meet weekly or bi-weekly. We have 20-50 people on a video conference. Once we get out of the summer, we’re going to do more big general sessions like the conference. We’ve had thousands of people sign up for these activities in a fashion that never occurred when everything was in person.
Our opera community feels more united and informed than ever before. Again, it is a lesson for us that when we reintroduce convenings—when it is possible to do so—we will never let go of the virtual work that we have learned how to do over the last four or five months.
TB: So minus a pandemic, it is August 12. Where would you be and what would you be doing?
MS: On August 12, I would have been in Santa Fe last week. There was to have been a big dinner honoring an important board member on Sunday. I would have been there and I would have seen the Santa Fe season. From there, I would have gone on to either Glimmerglass or out to LA to catch up with some of our colleagues in California.
We had planned a patron trip to the Savonlinna Festival for the end of July to very early August. So, I would have just come back from Europe. I would have been jet-lagged for a couple of days before going to Santa Fe to be jet-lagged for another couple of days. [Laughter] But I would have been seeing lots of members at the summer festivals and hearing from them about the news of the day.
TB: Let’s talk about moving forward and some changes that we may see. What impact do you think this is going to have on the opera world as we move forward?
MS: It is so hard to know because there are different scenarios. Is the vaccine effective? Does COVID-19 morph into COVID-20 and suddenly we are figuring out what to do all over again? Is it something that comes back every year in some different way? There are so many different scenarios that it is really hard to chart a course.
A digital presence, many times greater than it used to be, is with us forever, whether that is interviews with artists, home recitals, or recorded and streamed performance, or operas that are created for the digital platforms so that we’re not just using digital media to transmit traditional activity. Partnerships between opera companies and media companies or producers will continue. So digital media will be a much more amplified part of opera life going forward.
Given the economic uncertainty and that we don’t know how audiences will react to reconvening in big theaters, I suspect that a lot of early activity will be smaller—in smaller venues or places where people feel a little more comfortable convening, rather than in the 3000 seat opera house. The balance between big theater grand opera and smaller-scale alternative venues is going to be changed for the foreseeable future.
I do believe that the process of contracting artists and how we pay artists will change. None of us want to see artists caught in the vice that they’ve been caught in. Will there be some payment on signing a contract? Is there some partial payment on arriving in a city for rehearsal? Is there some partial payment at the completion of a rehearsal period? I think all of that is being worked out and it will be negotiated on an individual contract basis. But I do think there is going to be a much wider berth for discussion about how we pay artists.
Another question is, will there be some more emphasis on ensembles, the way that Tomer Zvulun [Atlanta Opera] is doing. I think some companies may find there’s an advantage to having a cluster of resident artists who are local, at least for the time of their residency. They create community programs and a sense of presence 10-12 months a year.
TB: What would your advice be to young and emerging artists?
MS: Keep the faith. Opera will thrive in the 21st century. I have spoken to young and emerging artists on many occasions about the importance of versatility and the ability to do new opera and traditional opera; the ability to perform effectively without amplification and using microphones; to develop the ability to be stage performers and also to perform for the camera. Now, if you are the kind of singer blessed with a big voice that can just wake up and sing Verdi or Puccini, great! But if you are not blessed in that way, versatility is essential going forward in building a career.
TB: Then what advice would you give to the musical community at large right now?
MS: To have the courage to embrace uncertainty and to find excitement in the unknown that is ahead of us. I don’t know what we have to gain by wringing our hands over what we can’t do. I don’t know what we gain by lamenting what we may have lost in this transition. I think we need to look forward, and embrace and be comfortable with, the fact that we don’t have all the answers and that some of the developments that may emerge are very exciting. Whatever they may be. So my advice is courage with the unknown and excitement over the possibilities.
TB: So finally, as we’re all caught at home and watching things, what would you recommend as a ‘video binge’?
MS: When I’m off the screen, I tend to read. I am a big reader and a reader of history. I can’t remember who said it, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes” [Attrib. Mark Twain]. I find that in reading about the patterns of human behavior that have gotten us to the year 2020, I feel more comfortable (as I said earlier) with the unknown and unknowable. Because there have been so many moments of crisis and reinvention and a lot of them have similarities, even politically. I read a lot of history in order to know today better.
TB: What would your recommendation be for a look into history?
MS: I think it is very important to just know American history. We’re going through a rough time right now. And the issues that we’re dealing with today go back centuries in our history. We have to know who we are as a nation in order to come to terms with the issues of racial justice, to understand the nature of our democracy, and the need for citizens to be informed and to participate in it for democracy to succeed. Right now, I would say given the fact that we’re approaching an important federal election and that we have some very important social issues on the table, a good dose of American history would be good for all of us.
TB: I want to thank you again for chatting with me today and for the work you are doing for our field.
About Marc Scorca
Marc A. Scorca joined OPERA America in 1990 as president/CEO. Since then, OPERA America has awarded nearly $20 million in grants to member companies and their partners to support the creation and production of new work, encourage innovative practices in all areas of administration and production, increase civic practice and audience development activities, and promote racial justice across the industry. During this time, membership in OPERA America has increased from 120 opera companies to nearly 3,000 organizations and individuals, with another 18,000 subscribers receiving a variety of free and fee-based services.
In December 2005, as the first step in the establishment of a National Opera Center, OPERA America relocated from Washington, D.C. to New York City. Since opening in September 2012, the custom-built National Opera Center has increased communication and collaboration with and among members both locally and nationally. Hosting 80,000 visitors annually, the Opera Center provides a number of unique facilities and related services for organizations and artists that have never before been available under one roof.
Scorca conducts strategic planning retreats for opera companies and other cultural institutions internationally, and he has participated on panels for federal, state and local funding agencies, as well as for numerous private organizations. A strong advocate of collaboration, he led the Performing Arts Research Coalition (2000 to 2003) and the National Performing Arts Convention (2004 and 2008). He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Performing Arts Alliance and on the Music Advisory Board of Hunter College (CUNY), and on the Boards of the Association for Opera in Canada, Opera Europa and Ópera Latinoamérica. With Opera Europa and Ópera Latinoamérica, Scorca was an organizer of the first World Opera Forum in Madrid in 2018. He has also served on the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Board of Overseers of the Curtis Institute of Music. He appears frequently in the media on a variety of cultural issues.
Scorca attended Amherst College, graduating with high honors in both history and music. An internship at the Metropolitan Opera lasted through his college years, after which he held positions at the Opera Company of Philadelphia (now known as Opera Philadelphia), New York City Opera and Chicago Opera Theater before joining OPERA America.