Throughout most of its 42 seasons, Spoleto Festival USA has offered a variety of opera productions each year. Festival founder and composer Gian Carlo Menotti and his successors have selected works both familiar and new, often giving audiences multiple genres and stories to choose from.
The line-up for 2019, however, includes just one opera, “Salome,” which might lead audiences to consider if Spoleto scaling back.
“Opera is a magnificent art form,” said Mark Nerenhausen, president/CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust in Minneapolis. “We tend to project the image that opera is all about the aesthetics, but it involves several risks and rewards with returns on investment decisions.”
Opera has been popular for centuries. Composers are often challenged to innovate in order to appeal to modern audiences. But opera – like many of the traditional art forms – is facing difficulties in patronage today.
“Major opera and other performing arts organizations have struggled in recent years,” said Nerenhausen, who served as the president/CEO of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale.
Nerenhausen said that recently, quite a few companies have invested considerably to stage one expensive production – rather than a few on a smaller scale – to meet the decline in audience numbers.
“It is like putting all your money into one big stock rather than dividing it into several small ones,” Nerenhausen said. “The risks are higher and the returns on such investments are not always favorable.”
What counts as an “expensive” production is relative to the size of an arts organization and its budget, Nerenhausen said. Investment in a large production instead of several small productions could cost $2 million or $3 million more than usual for a company.
Steven Sloane, conductor of “Salome” and former music director at Spoleto, agrees that opera is a costly undertaking, but that it is worth every penny when a vision can be executed effectively and can ultimately transport the audience. It’s not about the number of operas produced, but the quality.
“Opera is not food for the stomach, it is food for the soul,” Sloane said. “It is about creating a complete musical and theatrical experience.”
According to Sloane, extravagance is not what defines an opera. It is a means to an end, to provide that experience no matter what it takes.
Sloane has been associated with Spoleto for 28 years. He believes the festival is comprehensive and daring in its selection and presentation, and has a large-scale menu defined by variety, innovation and quality.
Nerenhausen, too, feels that Spoleto has become one of the benchmark festivals in the country by “not just selling an art form or a performance but an entire experience.”
Nigel Redden, the director of Spoleto Festival USA defines Spoleto as a “multi-disciplinary festival,” and adds that the number of opera productions varies every season.
“There have been some years where we’ve performed four operas even and some others, just one. It might just go up next year,” Redden said.
The festival has included two or three operas most years, adding a fourth in 1978 and during several of the early seasons in the 1980s. There have only been two years in which the festival previously featured just one opera: 1982 (“Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”) and 2009 (“Louise”) – both years defined by international economic recessions.
“Opera is probably the most expensive undertaking in the arts,” Redden said. “It has a relatively limited audience as compared to theatre, longer rehearsal time and a requirement for large performance spaces.”
Spoleto’s production of “Salome” is expensive compared to previous opera performances at the festival, Redden said. But he added that it will be “radically different” – a reflection of 32 years gone by since the previous Spoleto Festival production of “Salome” in 1987.
But the arts are not about financial sense, Redden said. Opera in particular is about telling a powerful story to grip the viewer. It is about shared camaraderie between artists working towards that common goal – as seen at Spoleto.
One such artist, Melanie Henley Heyn, who is making her debut at Spoleto with the lead role in “Salome,” is optimistic about the success of the festival.
“I do not think Spoleto is scaling down at all. The festival is full up to the top,” Henley Heyn said.
The festival was committed to doing this opera and they wanted to invest in making it an amazing production, she said.
“In life in general, you get what you put in,” Henley Heyn said. “If you invest more – in an opera production, for instance – you will gain more artistically, and good quality will keep art moving.”
A revised version of this article was published in The Post & Courier in Jun 2019 at https://www.postandcourier.com/spoleto/the-risks-and-rewards-of-opera-at-spoleto-festival-usa/article_c65be8d0-87b6-11e9-9586-330d01d6be5a.html