An Organization Moves Forward
New programs and fresh ideas made the 2000s a time of progress for OPERA America.
The Opera Fund
In 2001, following years of generous but uncertain private contributions, OPERA America established the Opera Fund, a permanent endowment dedicated to supporting new works. Funded by a challenge grant from the Helen F. Whitaker Fund, the Opera Fund allowed OA to launch two types of grants for opera companies: Repertoire Development Grants, which support the creation and production of new works, and Audience Development Grants, which went toward audience-engagement initiatives for contemporary operas. (Audience Development Grants have since been reimagined as Civic Practice Grants, with the aim of bolstering opera companies’ efforts to address local civic priorities through partnerships.) Since its inception, the Opera Fund has supported 79 operas: works like Silent Night by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell, Margaret Garner by Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison, and Aging Magician by Paola Prestini and Rinde Eckert.
The 2000s saw the establishment of two of OA’s partner organizations: Opera Europa in Europe and Opera.ca, now entering its 20th anniversary year, in Canada. Canadian opera companies had long been members of OPERA America, and still are today, but until Opera.ca was founded in 2001, they didn’t have a national service organization of their own. The impetus for establishing Opera.ca was the need for Canadian companies to have a voice on Parliament Hill, just
as American companies were represented by OA on Capitol Hill. Opera.ca has since expanded its mission to include programs that support the production of new works, education and audience development, civic practice, governance, and resource development.
European companies had also been members of OA, but given the differences in producing and funding models on either side of the Atlantic, a service organization that could address the specific needs of European companies became necessary. The emergence of a more unified Europe, following the establishment of the EU and the euro, suggested the timing was right, and so Opera Europa was founded in 2002 through the merger of two organizations: the European Opera Network and Eurolyrica. Anthony Freud, then head of the Welsh National Opera, became board chair of Opera Europa and later of OA, and Nicholas Payne was hired as director of Opera Europa. In the first few years of Opera Europa’s existence, OA served in an advisory role to help get the organization off the ground and assist with convenings. Today, OA and Opera Europa offer reciprocal membership benefits, and their members frequently attend one another’s forums and conferences.
National Performing Arts Conventions
In 2004, an unprecedented gathering of arts organizations — the National Performing Arts Convention (NPAC) — was held in Pittsburgh, chaired by OA President and CEO Marc A. Scorca. NPAC brought together organizations including OA, the League of American Orchestras, Chorus America, and Dance/USA, for an arts-wide convening, with the aim of encouraging collaboration across the arts.
The need for a joint convention emerged, partially, out the culture wars of the 1990s and threats to the NEA’s budget. “The attacks on artistic expression and on the NEA in the early 1990s revealed that we were all good at creating art and reasonably good at running arts programs,” said Scorca at the press conference announcing NPAC, “but we had not yet come together as a community to articulate a message consistently and powerfully.”
The second iteration of NPAC took place in 2008 in Denver, and Chorus America President and CEO Anne Meier Baker served as co-chair alongside Scorca. The goal was to have more fully integrated conference experience than in 2004, when the various branches of the arts only came together for a few plenary sessions and mostly convened in separate hotels. The Denver experience was truly an arts-wide mega-convention, bringing together some 4,000 people from more than 30 arts service organization for five days of joint discussions.
OA Moves to New York City
OA had based in Washington, D.C., for more than 30 years when, at the 2004 National Performing Arts Convention, the board of directors decided to move the organization to New York City. OA’s lease in D.C. was about to end, and New York City appeared to be a strategic new home base, as it was the center for so much opera activity in the U.S.
The idea for creating a National Opera Center arose at that same 2004 meeting, when Charles MacKay, then general director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and OA’s incoming board chair, suggested that, if the organization was going to move to NYC, it should consider creating a center where auditions, recitals, and rehearsals could be held. There was a dire lack of space for these activities in the city — a problem that impacted the entire field — and OA had an opportunity to address this shared problem. MacKay’s concept bore fruit in 2012 with the opening of the National Opera Center.
Opera Conference 2005
One of OPERA America’s watershed convenings took place in 2005, when Michigan Opera Theatre hosted the annual Opera Conference in Detroit. Built around the world premiere of Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison’s Margaret Garner, the conference explored the theme of “Diverse Voices.” Morrison herself was the keynote speaker.
“I’ve always believed that the arts can bring people together,” noted the late David DiChiera, then Michigan Opera Theatre’s general director, at the time. “We always have to see our work in the context of making our community stronger, more connected, and a better place to live.
NEA Opera Honors
In 2008, the National Endowment for the Arts, in collaboration with OPERA America, launched the NEA Opera Honors to recognize people who made extraordinary contributions to opera in America. The public was invited to make nominations, and for four years, through 2011, the program annually honored figures like Leontyne Price, Carlisle Floyd, and Julius Rudel.
OA’s endeavors in the 2000s have resonated to the present day. The Opera Fund led to a grant portfolio that now supports the field with $2.1 million each year. Opera Conference 2005, the first annual conference to directly address issues of race, served as a starting point for today’s robust and frequent discussions about equity, diversity, and inclusion. The NEA Opera Honors inspired OA to create a new Opera Hall of Fame, launching this year, that will incorporate all past NEA Opera Honorees and induct new honorees annually. And OA’s move to NYC and creation of the National Opera Center proved a pivotal shift in the organization’s service to the field, allowing it to provide space to some 80,000 Opera Center visitors each year.