Is Opera In America In Peril?

Apr 25, 2014
Originally published on April 27, 2014 2:09 pm

With the New York City Opera announcing its closing and the San Diego Opera in peril, the state of opera in the United States appears to be tottering.

But as mezzo soprano Jennifer Rivera wrote in the Huffington Post, there’s still much vibrant opera to be found. One place to find it is in Boston, where this weekend, Boston Baroque presents a semi-staged version of Claudio Monteverdi’s “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria.”

Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães will make his U.S. debut as Ulisse, and Jennifer Rivera plays his wife, Penelope. The two join Here & Now’s Robin Young to talk about the state of opera, here and abroad.

Interview Highlights

Jennifer Rivera on her husband adding a segment to his opera podcast

“It’s called ‘The Weekly Dirge.’ We talk about which company has failed or has closed or shut its doors. And it seems like every month at least, there’s some other company, large or small. The New York City Opera was of course the most enormous shocker. I mean – not, because there was many years of problems going on, but it was a major, major company. And now with San Diego, it’s certainly alarming as an American performer. And I’ve performed in Europe also a lot, so I have the two to compare. Without government subsidies that they have in Europe, we certainly struggle with finding the balance of being a nonprofit organization and finding donors who can sponsor the productions, and also having artistic autonomy.”

Fernando Guimarães on government funding of culture in Portugal

“There is, we can say there is. Although in recent years with this economic recessions, that state funding is being severely decreased. … I can say I hardly ever work in Portugal right now, for instance. We only have one opera theater in Lisbon, the São Carlos Theater was almost on the verge of closing its doors completely.”

Jennifer Rivera on opera company budgets

“I was just singing in Omaha, which is not an enormous company but which manages to produce very interesting works for half a million dollars, whereas the San Diego Opera with this budget of $15 million, was saying they were having to declare bankruptcy because they couldn’t possibly produce four operas on $15 million. And that’s just not a model that’s seeming to work anymore in this country. People have to rethink how they’re spending their money.”

Fernando Guimarães on how to get young people to go to the opera

“Most of all we have to focus on education in school. It all starts from our schools, from the way we build up these young people to love arts, to love culture, a higher form of culture.”

Guests

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Opera is having a tough time. Last week, the president of the board of directors of the San Diego Opera resigned after an uproar over the board's vote to close the company whose future is now uncertain. Last fall, the New York City Opera Company - the New York City Opera company - announced its closing. Cleveland Opera and Opera Pacific have also brought down the final curtain.

As one of next guests asked in the Huffington Post, is opera in America circling the toilet? And mezzo soprano Jennifer Rivera makes the case that to survive, opera companies need to pare down and focus on the music. That's what they do on a rare performance this weekend by Boston Baroque of Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses." Early in the week, Jennifer rehearsed at Boston's Jordan Hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "IL RITORNO D'ULISSE IN PATRIA")

YOUNG: Mezzo soprano Jennifer Rivera who plays Penelope, Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimaraes plays Ulisse in his U.S. debut, and we're thrilled these 30-something rising opera stars can join us in the studio. Welcome.

JENNIFER RIVERA: Thank you.

FERNANDO GUIMARAES: Thank you.

YOUNG: Fernando, I'll start with you. And I'm sorry to preface our conversation by telling you that this country that you are just coming to and making your debut in is somehow turning its back in some ways on opera. Sorry about that. I mean, have you heard about, you know, these questions that Jennifer and others are raising?

GUIMARAES: Yeah. I've, of course, heard about it in social media a lot. And I'm really surprised because I thought opera was quite so flourishing here in America.

YOUNG: Well, as we're going to hear from Jennifer, it is in some places. And she actually has some thoughts about how maybe it could be more. But just to continue to introduce you to our audience, we have a little of you performing. This is Falvetti's "Nabucco" or Nebuchadnezzar in English. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "NABUCCO")

YOUNG: Now, Jennifer Rivera, I'm loving that. What are you hearing when you hear that rich sound?

RIVERA: Well, I just smiled because, well, first of all, because it's always hard to hear yourself sing. And I was - so I was looking at Fernando to see if he had any reaction because whenever you hear your own voice, it's always a strange feeling. But I very much enjoy hearing his voice, and we get to sing a lovely duet together. And he gets to sing right in my ear, which is a real pleasure.

YOUNG: Well, and he was saying - oh, right, like whispering but it's not. It's opera, so he's right in your ear.

RIVERA: Yeah. Well, it's a love duet, so it's not so loud. And he's a very kind tenor. He doesn't scream in my ear.

YOUNG: Well, we have some more from your rehearsal for this weekend's performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "IL RITORNO D'ULISSE IN PATRIA")

YOUNG: Jennifer, in your article in the Huffington Post, you write about your husband's opera podcast and how he's had to add a new segment.

RIVERA: Yes. Well, it's actually not new, unfortunately. This has been going on since he started the podcast about six years ago. But it's called "The Weekly Dirge." We talk about which company has failed or has, you know, closed or shut its doors. And it seems like every month at least, there's some other company, large or small. The New York City Opera was, of course, the most enormous shocker. I mean, not because there was many years of problems going on, but it was a major, major company.

And now with San Diego, it's certainly alarming as an American performer. And I've performed in Europe also a lot, so I have the two to compare. You know, without government subsidies that they have in Europe, you know, we certainly struggle with finding the balance of being a nonprofit organization and finding donors who can sponsor the productions, and also having artistic autonomy.

YOUNG: Well, hold that thought for a second because you mentioned the state funding. Fernando, there is state funding of culture in Portugal, isn't there?

GUIMARAES: There is. We can say there is. Although in recent years with this economic recession, that state funding is being severely decreased.

YOUNG: Can you feel that effect as an opera singer?

GUIMARAES: Absolutely. I can say I hardly ever work in Portugal right now, for instance. We only have one opera theater in Lisbon. The Sao Carlos Theater was almost on the verge of closing its doors completely.

YOUNG: Well, so, Jennifer, this was something - you were looking to Europe for a model, but even the European model is being dented, as we heard. But you say in your piece, it's not about having to spend a lot of money. It's about how you choose to spend the money.

RIVERA: That's exactly right. I mentioned in my article the fact that I was just singing in Omaha, which is not an enormous company but which manages to produce very interesting works for half a million dollars, whereas the San Diego, Opera with this budget of $15 million, was saying they were having to, you know, declare bankruptcy because they couldn't possibly produce four operas on $15 million. And that's just not a model that's seeming to work anymore in this country. People have to rethink how they're spending their money.

YOUNG: Sure. Who needs the staircase with the, you know, they always come down...

RIVERA: Well, the staircase is nice sometimes, but - and some places still have that. And you can go to the Metropolitan Opera if you want to see the staircase.

YOUNG: They always have a staircase.

RIVERA: They always seem to have a staircase. But you don't have to have the staircase to experience unamplified singing, which is the greatness of opera.

YOUNG: Well, in fact, you mentioned Omaha. You write about performing in "Agrippina" in, as you said, Omaha. But you also did it in Berlin, which is a luxurious production. Let's just listen to a little of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "AGRIPPINA")

YOUNG: Did you feel as vital and vibrant in both?

RIVERA: Yes. Absolutely. For me, it was as artistically fulfilling. There was a very creative young director, who thought outside the box, who put a modern production on stage. And it was in Omaha where they don't usually hear Handel operas. And the audience went crazy for it.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, meantime, we were all commenting on how young you look. Well, you know, here you are just, you know, making your bones in your field. And, you know, here you are getting on the main stages as the curtains, as we said, are falling down. You're nodding.

RIVERA: It is interesting. I've seen the business change tremendously in the last - I've been doing this for about 15 years. And, you know, it has changed a lot in this country in terms of the opportunities available to singers. I mean, New York City Opera alone was a huge opportunity for many young singers. That's where I started out. But with all of the companies folding, there are just so many fewer jobs. But there are more singers because there's a lot of really good school programs. There's far more competition for the few opera jobs that exist.

YOUNG: So young people are studying opera. How do you get more of them to go to opera?

GUIMARAES: Most of all we have to focus on education in school. You know, it all starts from our schools, actually; from the way we build up these young people to love arts, to love culture, a higher form of culture.

RIVERA: Fernando is exactly right in that we need more education, and in this country especially. I know because when I was a student at Julliard, I actually taught in public schools as part of a program through Julliard, and I was teaching 6 and 7-year-olds about opera. And the first day I went in to teach them, they were covering their ears when I was singing. By the end of the semester, they were asking me to hear the operas over and over again. It just takes a little bit, you know?

YOUNG: Well, what an image you just painted, going from hands over their ears to wanting more. That's mezzo soprano Jennifer Rivera. We've also been speaking with Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimaraes. We'll have more on their performance of Monteverdi's "Return of Ulysses" with the Boston Baroque at hereandnow.org. Thank you both.

RIVERA: Thank you for having us.

GUIMARAES: Thank you.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

You know, Robin, this reminds me that as a little theater, a little amateur opera theater called the Amato Opera Theater in New York was just about to close in its last week, I got to go and see "Carmen" there, which was fantastic.

YOUNG: And they will be missed, I'm sure.

HOBSON: Absolutely.

YOUNG: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston, in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.