CHAUTAUQUA - One of the greatest cultural treasurers of our area is the Chautauqua Opera Company.
The company was formed in the 1920s, the same year the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra was formed, and is one of the oldest opera companies in the United States. It is one of only 125 opera companies in the entire country. Having a professional opera company is an accomplishment which has not been achieved by many major cities. The nearest companies to our area, other than Chautauqua Opera, are in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
This week, I wanted to tell you some things about opera in our country today, and then to share with you two conversations which I have recently had with people from the company. Carol Rausch is Music Administrator and Chorus Master at COC, and she is one of those people you rarely see, but who plays a major role in the success of the company.
Baritone Todd Thomas started his singing career in Chautauqua Opera's Young Artists Program, and has recently sung his debut with the Metropolitan Opera Company, in New York City. Last weekend, you might have heard him sing the role of the Count di Luna, in Giuseppe Verdi's opera ''Il Trovatore.'' Aug 7 and 10, he'll be back on the Norton Hall Stage as Baron Scarpia, in Puccini's ''Tosca.''
In my years as a teacher, I was always astonished by the fact that the vast majority of my students genuinely believed that opera was an obscure area of interest - something only a handful of people cared about. I wonder how nonsense such as that gets a hold of people's imaginations.
In fact, in 2007, which is the most recent year for which I could find figures, professional opera companies in the United States sold 20 million tickets. By comparison, the combined teams of the National Football League sold approximately 22 million tickets in the same year. The difference isn't statistically important.
In the two decades which passed between 1987 and 2007, the number of people who attended performances of opera increased by 46 percent.
Opera is, on the average, the most expensive of the major performing arts, because not only is it necessary to have a full stage of performing artists, some of whom have talents possessed by only a few people in the world, it is also necessary to have an entire symphony orchestra, performing in support. Unlike a symphony orchestra, for example, there are also expenses for costuming, wigs, scenery, make up, theatrical lighting, and the like, in addition to keeping the building open, lighting it, and setting up the scene.
Since the economy tanked, last fall, virtually all voluntary activities have suffered, including television, the movies, and professional sports. Three opera companies have gone under: in Baltimore, Chattanooga Tenn., and Santa Ana, Calif.
Other companies, including famously the New York City Opera, have reduced the number of performances they will be offering. Yet, even so, opera-going remains one of the healthiest and best-supported public activities in our country. Since September of last year, the company in Minneapolis, for example, has sold an average of about 1,700 tickets per performance, despite an average ticket price of just over $100.
May I add that New York City Opera performs in a giant theater which is literally only a few steps from the internationally-celebrated Metropolitan Opera, both in the city's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. That is some pretty stiff competition.
My statistics come from the Journal of the American Enterprise Institute, not some piece of artistic propaganda. If we're going to attempt to pry open minds which have slammed tightly shut, it's undoubtedly wise to start with the truth.
Even if you've been to a performance of the opera at Chautauqua's Norton Hall, during the past several decades it's possible you haven't seen or didn't recognize Carol Rausch. Yet she plays so many crucial roles in what goes on there, she would have to rank among the most important figures in the creation of the art which goes on there.
Her official job title is Music Administrator and Chorus Master, and she works at it throughout the entire year, not just during the nine weeks of the Chautauqua season. What that means takes considerable explanation.
''In most of our productions, you have major roles, which are sung by professional singers. You also have servants, townspeople, soldiers, and groups such as that, which are an important part of nearly every opera. There was a time at Chautauqua Opera, when those singers were volunteers. Since 1962, those chorus parts are sung by members of our Young Artist Program,'' Ms. Rausch said.
''I help the choruses to prepare, so that they are all ready to perform in the same way. If the director wants the chorus to sing menacingly, it isn't good to have one or two singers acting merry and looking cheerful. If the hero hears a group of singers in the distance, I'm backstage, conducting them, so that they start at the same precise moment and sing at the precise tempo which is required,'' she added.
When artistic director Jay Lesenger chooses an opera for the coming summer season, he also chooses a conductor, to be responsible for the orchestra, which is made up from members of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. The conductor is also responsible for the interaction between the instrumentalists and the singers, and he or she is present at rehearsals, to regulate the effects of the stage directions on the music. If the tenor is supposed to climb up a ladder while singing an important aria, it will affect the sound he makes, for example. Ms. Rausch serves as the interface among Lesenger, the conductor for each of the operas, the orchestra, and dozens of other contributors.
For example, there are often several versions of each opera. The Music Administrator needs to determine which version has been selected by Lesenger and the conductor, to order the printed music, from which the instrumentalists will perform, to make sure it arrives on time and is returned to the publisher from which it is rented, on time, and to distribute the printed music to the orchestra.
If a scene takes place in a tavern, for example, it is necessary that some members of the chorus are present as customers, and some are performing as waiters or serving women. She is involved in making those decisions, and preparing those who will be singing in that particular scene.
Recently the company performed a production of ''Il Trovatore,'' by Giuseppe Verdi, which includes a scene in which the heroine is kidnapped from the altar of a church, where she is about to take the veil, and become a nun. A church scene normally always includes organ music, and Ms. Rausch was playing that music, on a synthesizer.
In addition to her work at Chautauqua, Carol Rausch serves a similar function with New Orleans Opera Assn. She previously worked for Virginia Opera, Greater Miami Opera, Ohio Light Opera, and Opera Columbus. She has taught at both Ohio State University, and for the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.
She is presently Music Director for the opera department at Loyola University, New Orleans, where she has prepared and conducted numerous opera productions. In 2009, these included ''The Elixir of Love,'' and ''Dido and Aeneas.''
She holds degrees from Ohio State University and Indiana University, and studied at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique in Brussels, Belgium, as a Rotary Foundation Graduate Fellow.
Each year, the Metropolitan Opera Company conducts auditions in regions all over our country and Canada. The Tri-Cities Region Competition, which includes Buffalo, Rochester and Toronto, have often been described in these pages. Ms. Rausch is piano accompanist for the Gulf Coast Regional Competition, and has served as a judge at both district and regional levels, throughout the country.
Since she has been at Chautauqua Opera for many years, I asked her to characterize how the company has changed, over the years. She said that as more money has become available for scholarships, and as better living and eating facilities and practice facilities have become available at Chautauqua, that more and better singers are choosing to study in the Apprentice Artist Program and the Studio Artist Program.
''It's exciting to work with these young artists. They're so talented, it's possible to produce a really fine result, and when they finish their study here, they often go on to major careers, at companies all over the world. It's very satisfying to feel I've had a hand in their progress,'' she said.
In recent years, the nation as a whole has chosen to cut back on the teaching of creative and developmental programs such as music, in favor of preparation for standardized testing. How does she explain the hundreds of young artists who still audition to study and perform at Chautauqua?
She answers, ''Opera meets human needs. It expresses and stimulates thoughts and feelings which are shared by thousands and thousands of people. We constantly encounter young people who don't expect to like it, but who are completely captivated by opera, once they actually see and hear it.
''And, once someone is bitten by the opera bug, it often becomes of major importance to him. Why else would so many people pay the ticket prices and make the millions of dollars worth of donations which make opera possible?'' she adds.
Carol Rausch said she never dreamed, when she accepted the job with Chautauqua Opera, that she would stay for more than 20 years. ''Chautauqua is a wonderful place to be,'' she said. ''Working a 20-hour day is not unusual in this line of work, but at many opera companies, if I get a few minutes off, I can read or watch television. At Chautauqua, when a few minutes' relaxation comes along, I can attend a dance performance or an orchestra recital or a play performance or a recital, or a lecture... Most of the members of our staff have been here at least 10-15 years, and that is unusual. Colleagues become friends and working with friends makes working easier and more enjoyable.''
A man who is a living illustration of the growth of the Young Artists Program at Chautauqua is baritone Todd Thomas. He was an apprentice artist in the 1986 and 1987 seasons, and has returned to perform as a leading performer in the years since, including principal roles in ''Fiddler on the Roof,'' and ''Madama Butterfly.''
As mentioned above, he sang a leading role, to the high praise of this critic, in last weekend's production of ''Il Trovatore,'' and will be performing the role of Baron Scarpia in the early August production of ''Tosca.''
Both Scarpia and the Count di Luna - his role in ''Trovatore'' are cruel men. Looking over his recent roles in other productions, such as the title role in ''Macbeth'' and the cruel-tongued, hunchbacked jester in ''Rigoletto,'' one wonders whether the singer has an affinity for villains, or if it is simply that opera composers like to have the heroic roles sung by tenors, whose higher, more ringing tones can sound out over the more rumbling tones of a baritone.
''I can't think of these parts as villains,'' he tells me. ''People who do cruel or bad things virtually always believe that they are doing the right thing, that they are dealing out justice or acting in support of the law or a parent's wish or something which justifies in their minds, the cruelty they inflict.''
''People never say in their own minds that they're about to do something which is evil, or which is undeserved. Part of my job in preparing for one of these roles is to find the reasoning they give to themselves for the things they do. That makes them human, and makes the opera more believable,'' he said.
Thomas is a native of nearby Elmira, and admits he especially enjoys performances at Chautauqua for reasons in addition to artistic ones. ''My wife and I have four children, ages 17, 13, 10 and 2,'' he said. ''Chautauqua Opera performs in the summer time, when the kids aren't in school, and it isn't difficult to convince them to come here. My wife is taking some classes, my oldest daughter has been accepted for an internship in applying make up, my son is enjoying the Boys and Girls Club, they all like the lake... It's a great place to come artistically, but it's a great place to be, as well.''
I asked how the profession of opera singer has changed, since he apprenticed here nearly 25 years ago. He said that some things were the same, but that there have been at least two major changes: ''In the late 1980s, companies first began projecting the words in English, either above our below the stage, while we're performing. Before then, many more companies performed their operas in English. Audiences tend to enjoy a performance more and to get more involved in it when they know what's happening. On the other hand, to make an operatic sound, it's necessary to make an open vowel sound. When the words get translated into English, many vowel sounds use a short letter 'e,' or a short 'i,' and those require a partially closed throat.''
He admitted that it can be troubling to look out at an audience and see that they're all looking up toward the ceiling, instead of at what he is about to do on the stage.
The second large change has been the introduction by the Metropolitan Opera, of digital broadcasts in movie theaters of their productions. ''Opera has a long tradition of casting roles according to how well someone sings,'' he said. ''The digital broadcasts makes a singer's face the size of a building, and the audience is more affected by how much the singer looks like the character. I'm noticing that more and more companies hire singers whose voices aren't especially appropriate for roles, because of their looks. And, companies are putting more emphasis on acting than on singing, and while acting is important, singing is the be-all and end-all of opera.''