Not long ago, you could clasp your binoculars in your opera gloves and set out to a local venue to watch performers sing and perish to foreign arias. Around this same time, WITF played Saturday broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera House.
These days, it seems that opera in Harrisburg is almost as hard to find as a happy ending for poor Madame Butterfly. However, several opera companies still perform locally, giving fans a few opportunities a year to experience the song, spectacle and drama. And, while local opera’s profile may seem pianissimo, the enthusiasm, following and quality often hit high notes.
Capital Opera Harrisburg has been around since 2000, averaging one or two performances per year. COH focuses on the classics. “La Traviata” played this past June, and “La Boheme” will be performed next summer.
Its founding general director, Kathleen Torchia Travers, emphasized the importance of helping artists polish their skills to a professional caliber.
“They need roles on their resumes, so they are willing to come to Harrisburg from larger cities for the experience,” she said. “For local artists, there is potential to grow through roles in traditional operas.”
Coordinating an opera behind the scenes is its own type of learning experience, with responsibilities like publicity, programs and press releases. One of the greatest lessons may be how to make do with a lot of passion but scant resources (did you hear about the recent opera flash mob at the Maserati dealership on the Carlisle Pike in Mechanicsburg?).
Kathryn McCarney Foster, Center Stage Opera’s founder, director and producer, also underscored the mentorship experience.
“At this point in my life, I want to train other singers and keep opera alive culturally,” she said.
Based in New Cumberland, CSO performs a roving opera in a variety of local and regional venues three times per year using singers from around the East Coast. Many seasoned performers move on to larger opera houses from CSO, while some established singers from elsewhere come here.
“All performers are in various stages of their careers,” Foster said. “Some artists come for internships.”
CSO’s traveling show packs light, with sets, props, costumes and small scenery pieces. An orchestra accompanies, when available.
Foster said that, while the form may seem intimidating, opera still appeals to people, because modern audiences can relate to ageless themes like love, deception and tragedy.
“Storylines haven’t changed throughout civilization,” she said “People haven’t changed. Their trappings change.”
Lack of Love
The Harrisburg Opera Association, on hiatus since 2010, has an enthusiastic artistic coordinator poising to revive the company.
Tami Swartz is a professional performing artist and director based in New York. She is building her resume in singing and acting, including in opera houses in larger U.S. cities and Europe. To her, acting deserves the same theatrical emphasis as singing in opera.
“Harrisburg has a symphony, a top-class jazz organization and venues, multiple theater venues, adult and youth ballet companies and a wealth of visual artists and galleries,” she said. “We have a few quality local opera companies still in existence, but none in the higher regional category.”
A common death in many operas is lack of love. While Harrisburg’s opera scene isn’t completely dead or unloved, it is staggering from stage right with a dagger plunged into its purse.
Travers, Foster and Swartz agreed—the demographic doesn’t have enough wealthy people in Harrisburg interested in opera. This holds true both for underwriting performances and filling audiences. After the Great Recession, potential audience members had even less disposable income.
Foster cited another influential event producing a shift in opera.
“Americans started competing with singers from eastern European countries when the [Berlin] Wall came down,” she said. “Then, in 2008, when the economy collapsed, many opera companies folded. Large productions became too expensive.”
Moreover, opera is simply less visible or heard than it once was.
“WITF no longer broadcasts Saturday broadcasts from the Met, which is a big loss for Harrisburg,” said city resident Annette Mathes.
That regular broadcast was Mathes’ gateway to becoming an opera aficionado. She values the complexity of opera, comparing its many integrated components to intellectual athleticism.
To get her opera fix, she now ventures to the moviehouse to watch, “The Met Live in HD.”
“The Met Live in HD productions are a fabulous way to see live opera streamed from the best opera house in the world,” she said. “The camera work is fantastic. So are the behind-the-scenes interviews and set construction during intermissions.”
Met Live has been held in local cinemas for the past decade. The more popular productions fill the theaters.
Swartz attributed part of Harrisburg’s opera decline to the availability of the Met’s broadcasts. The unintended consequence and convenience of seeing opera in a local cinema theater have replaced live attendance.
“Access to professional live opera performances with full costumes, sets, lights, props, special effects, full orchestra, in professional venues enrich people’s lives in a way filmed performances cannot,” Swartz said. “Opera is interactive, auditorily stimulating and provides a gateway to the imagination.”
To make live opera more accessible for the community, COH and CSO often perform in local theaters and churches, offering affordable pricing structures. Travers also mentioned fundraisers and charity productions.
Opera aficionados tend to be a passionate people. They write, sing and speak with a lyrical timbre and with a sense of mission importance. That mission is to breathe life back into Harrisburg’s opera scene and to grow its presence and fan base.
So, while Harrisburg opera may be struggling, the fat lady hasn’t sung either.
Opera Near You
Would you like to experience opera right here in central PA? For more information on local opera, visit:
Center Stage Opera, www.csopera.org
Harrisburg Opera Association, www.harrisburg-opera.org
Capitol Opera Harrisburg, www.capopera.com
Met Live, www.metopera.org