Wednesday, December 19, 2007

History In The Making

The operatic art form is of such an ephemeral nature that there is scant tangible evidence with which to document what really happened during the growth and maturation of America's operatic community. In most instances, all that remains are some news clippings, pr¬gram books and the memories which reside within the hearts and minds of the audience.

Alas, reviews, recordings, videotapes, and compact discs cover only a fraction of the events which comprise the day-to-day activities of an opera company. In the course of trying to plan a season and get each production up and running, many of us forget to take stock of our achievements. Instead, the acute professional stress which accompanies ongoing fundraising campaigns, crisis management, and the challenge of operating an arts organization in a society whose anti-intellectualism keeps growing by leaps and bounds means that our attention must constantly be focused forward, without much opportunity to retrench, regroup and examine the recent past.

More than half of the opera companies in North America were founded during the past twenty years, and if we survey those celebrating important milestones during the 1989-1990 season, some interesting facts come to light. This season the Atlanta Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Gold Coast Opera, L'Opera de Montreal, and Opera Hamilton observe their tenth anniversary seasons. The Anchorage Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Indianapolis Opera, Syracuse Opera, Virginia Opera, Opera Company of Philadelphia, Opera Ebony, Opera Theater of St. Louis, and Pacific Opera Victoria light 15 candles on their birthday cakes.

Both the Portland Opera and San Diego Opera celebrate silver anniversaries (25 years), while the Vancouver Opera chalks up 30 years in operation. Houston Grand Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago turn 35 while the Chattanooga Opera, Mississippi Opera, New York City Opera and Opera/Delaware commemorate their 45th anniversaries. Second only to the mighty Metropolitan, the Cincinnati Opera marks its 70th year in existence this season.

That's an awful lot of grass-roots history to keep track of -- assuming anyone has found time to do it. While many music lovers are keen to worship opera's history (from its inception up to and including the age of Maria Callas), all too often we fail to pay attention to the history which we, ourselves, are making. Although Dance Theater of Harlem has had its own archivist for the past, twenty years, until this summer the Metropolitan Opera was the only opera company in America to have a full-time archivist on its professional staff.

Houston Grand Opera recently (and wisely) promoted its veteran publicist, Ava Jean Mears, to the newly-created position of company archivist. Of all the people on HGO's staff, it is Mears who has constantly been keeping track of the company's history-making achievements while retrieving long-buried materials and accumulating a wealth of company lore. Her foresight in suggesting that all of HGO's historical material be collated, codified and made consistent is a welcome bit of clear-headed, down¬to-earth thinking in a profession known primarily for its highly emotional, ego-related outbursts. Her intense passion for the art form, for Houston Grand Opera and for the people who work in opera (a key personality trait shared by most archivists) is contagious and inspirational.

The editors of Opera Monthly want to take this occasion to wish Mears (an untiring champion of regional opera and a staunch supporter of our magazine) the very best in her new job while suggesting that the rest of the operatic community take careful note of HGO's ground¬breaking move. Here's why: Opera people are constantly making history. And when opera is described as "the most labor-intensive art form known to man" what that really means is that the art form depends on long hours of hard work from many supremely dedicated people.

While major artists fly to and fro, most of an opera company's working history resides in the hearts and minds of its professional staff and volunteers. Whenever someone burns out, takes another job, retires, moves to another city or dies, a huge chunk of company lore vanishes into thin air. With so much working history at stake, scrapbooks filled with reviews can't possibly tell the entire story of an opera company's trials, triumphs and tribulations. Why not? Because most of that history was created by ordinary people putting one foot ahead of the other, one day at a time.

Unless America's opera companies make a greater effort to document their own growth, their general directors may awaken one day to discover that the people routinely charged with relating their company's history to the media have disappeared. In many cases, they will have been replaced by a younger generation of administrators who lack the intimate knowledge of their organization's history which is necessary to handle the critical job of documenting its past, maintaining its legacy to the community it serves, and transmitting that information to future audiences.

When Carnegie Hall's archivist, Gino Francesconi, set out to document the history of one of the world's most treasured cultural institutions, he was confronted with three cartons of printed matter and a wave of hostility from people who didn't think the auditorium's past should be entrusted to a musician!

The history which America's operatic comunity is currently creating is much too significant to be abused. How do we treat history in the making? Either we use it or we lose it.

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This article originally appeared in the October 1989 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.

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