Features

Moving to the Center

JENNIFER MELICK visits Manhattan's brand-new National Opera Center, a meeting, rehearsal and performance facility planned and operated by OPERA America.

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A view of the audition/recital hall at the National Opera Center, designed by Andrew Berman Architect
© Andrew Berman Architect 2012

This is just step one in bringing to New York an international center for opera creation," says Marc Scorca. It's late April, and I'm standing with the voluble president of OPERA America in an old fur-factory building in midtown Manhattan, as he shows off his organization's new National Opera Center, a 25,000-square-foot space opening to the public on September 4. It's a bold step for OPERA America, a service organization whose main function is to support the activities of its member companies. In February 2011, OPERA America signed a twenty-year lease for the seventh and eighth floors of 330 Seventh Avenue, between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth Streets, with the option to renew the lease for another five years. 

Five months before the center's opening, it is still an active construction space, with wires hanging from the ceiling and dust everywhere, but soon it will be home to vocal studios, a score library, an artist lounge, a formal boardroom, classrooms, soundproof rehearsal spaces, an audition/recital hall that holds just under ninety people, OPERA America's administrative offices, and technology such as a recording studio and three HD cameras for live-streaming performances from the center. Member opera companies can rent the space, as can singers, other musicians and arts nonprofits. (All spaces are also available for the general public to rent, although members are given booking priority and lower rates.)

The opera center is an idea that Scorca says he first hatched around the time OPERA America was moving its administrative offices from Washington, D.C., to New York. "Our members come to New York to do so much of their essential work. As soon as we moved here in 2005, our members started using our conference room for coproduction meetings, to hold auditions, meet with publishers, do design presentations, interview potential staff members. But we also knew that there were not adequate spaces to do opera work in New York. It sounds somehow counter-logical that in a city that has this much space, there wouldn't be a place where you could do auditions in an acoustically suitable place that is hospitable to singers. Some of the audition spaces our members use are just wide-open lofts with no reception space, no space to warm up, no place to sit and wait for your audition. The singers warm up in elevators, in the ladies' room and men's room, and you can't tell what the voice sounds like." The "sound bleed" in many of the city's rehearsal and audition spaces means singers might be auditioning with "Voi che sapete" to the accompaniment of an out-of-tune piano, with the sounds of tap dancing or vocal callbacks for Evita clearly audible from upstairs or down the hall. 

There will be modest hoopla to celebrate the center's opening. OPERA America has commissioned nearly fifty composers, each to contribute a five-minute song, all of which will be part of an OPERA America Songbook to be published by Schott. The Songbook will be recorded for a three- or four-CD set, available by the time of the center's opening day. Most of the center's activity will be conducted by its members, behind the scenes. Among the arts organizations that have booked the space for 2012–13 are Marilyn Horne and the Music Academy of the West, to work with the young singers in that program; Gotham Chamber Opera, to rehearse its fall opera in the rehearsal hall; and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, which plans to conduct four days of auditions in the center. American Lyric Theater, a New York-based nonprofit run by Lawrence Edelson that mentors composers and librettists by developing and workshopping new operas, will use the space for more than sixty classes and workshops; one of the operas it helped create, All Wounds Bleed, by composer Christopher Cerrone and librettist Tony Asaro, will be performed at the center in fall 2012. At press time, OPERA America was working with the all-digital theater network Emerging Pictures, a company founded in 2002 that streams opera from European theaters to independent U.S. movie theaters, to set up a series of HD opera transmissions into the center, from places such as Glyndebourne and Covent Garden; John Conklin is planning the pre- and post-performance educational programming. Other organizations slated to use the center in its first season include Boston Lyric Opera, the William Matheus Sullivan Musical Foundation, Fort Worth Opera, Wolf Trap Opera and Houston Grand Opera Studio. 

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The library at the National Opera Center
© Andrew Berman Architect 2012

Scorca talks a lot about the changes in New York City that have made it more difficult for singers and opera professionals to find a place to meet informally in person. "Some of the places people used to use have been demolished. In the old Mayflower Hotel, a lot of our members stayed there, and you could go down there at breakfast time or lunchtime and see members meeting with one another. That doesn't exist anymore." A lot of opera professionals remember hanging out at the State Theater, but Scorca notes, "Now that the New York City Opera isn't at the New York State Theater anymore, that isn't available. We moved here [to New York] to address a problem. That problem has become even more acute in the years since we've been here."

The recession has certainly exacerbated some of the economic challenges faced by arts organizations today, with New York City Opera prominent among those hit by those challenges. But it has also provided occasional opportunities for arts organizations looking for affordable work spaces; 2011 saw the opening of the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, whose primary tenant is the Orchestra of St. Luke's, but which also rents out space to other music groups. When it came to OPERA America's dream to build an opera center, the recession may have made it possible for the whole thing to happen — as long as the deal was constructed as a rental. "We are not trying to create an architectural iconic statement," says Scorca. "This has not been designed by Frank Gehry. We loved what Andrew Berman Architect had done for the AIA Center down on Lafayette Street.… In not trying to create an architectural icon, in renting and in not owning the space, we have been able to do it for this cost." That cost to build the center and get it up and running is $12 million. So far, OPERA America has raised roughly $10 million in its $14 million capital campaign for the center (a number that wraps in the additional $2 million it cost for OPERA America to relocate its offices to New York). Operating the center will increase OPERA America's budget by about $1 million a year, from $3 million to $4 million. The organization has projected 23 percent use of the center during its first year and 58 percent the second year, which Scorca calls a "reasonably conservative" estimate. 

In the end, what makes the National Opera Center possible comes down to real estate. The assumption used to be that owning, not leasing, was the best hedge against inflation and a great way for nonprofits without huge amounts of capital to help guarantee their survival. With real estate prices that soared at first, followed by a deep recession, that commonly accepted piece of wisdom was turned on its head for some arts organizations. In a July 12, 2011 New York Times article, Dorothea Keeser, president of the now-closed Chelsea Art Museum on West Twenty-second Street, explained, "We bought the building to be sure the museum could stay." In that article, she attributed the loss of the space to failed real-estate negotiations with a developer.

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Rehearsal space at the National Opera Center
© Andrew Berman Architect 2012

By contrast, here's a statement that appears prominently on the National Opera Center's homepage: "Market conditions have resulted in a unique opportunity to secure a long-term commitment for this space on favorable terms." Located in Manhattan's continually shrinking old garment district, this building worked because OPERA America settled on the centrally located but less sexy midtown south neighborhood, north of the art galleries of Chelsea and SoHo and south of the pricier major midtown office towers. 

Still, the burning question for many in the opera field is probably "Why a national opera center now?" The answer boils down to the increased need, in straitened economic times, for an affordable space in which opera companies can collaborate with each other. "Opera companies share things, more than symphonies or theater companies or dance companies," says Scorca. "Sets and costumes travel, directors and designers travel, the singers travel, conductors travel. What we're doing at the opera center is creating a space where the opera community can reside, and we hope this can lead to new relationships that lead to new coproductions, new co-commissions, sharing of ideas. The expense is mitigated somewhat if you have multiple partners in the co-commissioning process. 

"I think in the past couple of years people have come to realize how much new works do need to be workshopped, do need to be showcased in front of people who can give meaningful feedback, even if you just get to see an audience react to an opera in a reading or a workshop. We have a space here where people are doing that work, and that work can be shared globally through technology, which supports the work process itself but also supports the potential for more coproducers…. It is rare that working in isolation strengthens your organization. It is usually the case that being in a constant dialogue with colleagues and curating the best ideas that you hear will lead to greater strength in your own organization." spacer 

JENNIFER MELICK is managing editor of Symphony magazine. 

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4