Opera is integral to Spoleto Festival USA. Festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti was an opera composer. And for most of its 42 seasons, Spoleto Festival has offered at least two productions, sometimes familiar works, sometimes obscure ones.
The genre is demanding. It requires a significant artistic and financial investment. And it’s risky: many eggs are piled into a single basket. What if the show’s a flop?
“Opera is a magnificent art form,” said Mark Nerenhausen, president and 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, a popular form for centuries, is facing difficult challenges today.
“Major opera and other performing arts organizations have struggled in recent years,” said Nerenhausen, who served as president and CEO of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Some companies are mounting fewer productions, others are scaling down as public demand wanes.
“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.”
Steven Sloane, conductor of “Salome” and a Spoleto Festival veteran, said opera is worth every penny when a vision can be executed effectively and can ultimately transport the audience.
“Opera is not food for the stomach, it is food for the soul,” he said. “It is about creating a complete musical and theatrical experience.”
Sloane and Nerenhausen said that Spoleto Festival USA provides fertile ground for operatic innovation, even during a period of concern over the future of the art form.
Nigel Redden, general director of Spoleto Festival USA, said the multi-disciplinary festival prioritizes opera, despite the risks.
“Opera is probably the most expensive undertaking in the arts,” Redden said. “It has a relatively limited audience compared to theater, longer rehearsal time and a requirement for large performance spaces.”
But the arts are about more than balanced budgets, Redden said. Opera in particular is about telling powerful stories, about camaraderie among artists working toward a common artistic goal.
One such artist, Melanie Henley Heyn, making her festival debut in the lead role in “Salome,” said the commitment to this production has been unwavering.
“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.”
Lyle Michael is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.