How a community keeps the art of the opera alive in Eugene

Originally Posted on Emerald Media via UWIRE

University of Oregon junior Morgan Paige spends hours every week perfecting her craft. Along with the coaching she receives from Karen Esquivel, a university voice coach and director of the UO Opera Ensemble, the music performance major works to improve her vocal technique the way a pitcher practices a curveball. She learns the languages of the productions, what her co-stars are doing in order to react accordingly and memorizes complex notes and rhythms.

But those in the UO Opera Ensemble say they feel that it’s not appreciated in the eyes of the university community. The Ensemble’s lack of a performing hall, says Paige, is just one example of UO’s disregard for the group, which only has 11 actors working this term.

The ensemble, according to Esquivel, faces many obstacles beyond the needs of a performance hall. Many in the community find that opera doesn’t have the same appeal or place in popular culture as it once did. They’re finding that opera may need to be modernized to stay afloat.

Eugene Opera, a community nonprofit, had to abandon the second half of its season last year due to financial struggles, but had a promising end to its most recent season. After hiring a new executive director in September, Erika Rauer, Eugene Opera is rebuilding. But despite recent successes, the small company still finds itself in the same position as the UO Opera Ensemble: underexposed, understaffed and underfunded.  

“We deal with, essentially, rising fixed costs and decreasing audiences,” Rauer told the Emerald.

Opera’s lack of exposure combined with other competing forms of entertainment has taken a toll on its relevance in popular culture, many in the opera community say.

Rauer remembers when children and families listened to opera music by tuning to Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. “Kids aren’t listening to that anymore,” she said.  

On May 6, Anne Musgrove, 78, drove to the Hult Center to catch Eugene Opera’s production of “María de Buenos Aires.” It is a modern tango operetta about a woman who is seduced by tango, resorts to prostitution, is murdered, then reincarnated and eventually gives birth to what could be interpreted as herself. Musgrove arrived to a packed house. She has been tuning into the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts for the last 60 years, and is a patron of both Eugene Opera and UO Opera.

Younger audiences gravitate toward other forms of entertainment, such as popular cinema, where the action is fast and loud.

“The thing in opera that I think is not appealing to people is that the action is very slow,” Gustavo Castro, Esquivel’s husband and a part-time UO opera coach, said. Some opera attendees have difficulty sitting through a 12-minute aria that expresses only two emotions, Castro and Esquivel say.

UO Opera Ensemble Director and voice coach Karen Esquivel (left) and part-time voice coach Gustavo Castro (right). (Adam Eberhardt)

Esquivel ensures her productions are visually appealing and continuously exciting in order to keep modern audiences entertained. Many in the scene are coming to believe a similar sentiment: the nature of opera productions must shift, at least to some extent, to correct its falling audience numbers.

The most classic operas, what Esquivel calls “spaghetti operas,” are viewed as sacred to some and appreciated by many. But some modern viewers see them as dated or out of touch.

Dylan Bunten, an opera fan and senior majoring in music performance, recalls a screening of the classic “La Bohème” that he saw at Cinemark 17 a few months ago broadcasted by the Metropolitan Opera. While still appreciating the raw emotion, artistic purpose and music of the production, he found himself chuckling at its dated perspective on love.

“It portrayed the emotions and feelings of love in such old-fashioned ways,” he said. “Having a 21st [century] idea of what it means to have love and how nuanced it is — I laughed a few times.”

“I think that opera struggles because it has to reconcile the past with the present,” Rauer said. She believes there needs to be some adaptation to better align with the current social climate. Esquivel agrees, but she is wary of becoming overly sensitive. Musgrove disagrees and instead views the dated-ness as a symbol for how far society has progressed since these works premiered.

Many believe that recent works can help boost opera’s exposure. Eugene Opera embodies these notions by commonly producing one traditional opera during their season, and one newer work like “María de Buenos Aires.” However, Rauer understands that pursuing newer productions can have a negative effect on their older donorship base, who typically love the classics.

“I think we would take more risks if we weren’t worried about the financial impact,” Rauer said. In some occasions, donors will pull out of a company completely if they feel like the classics are being left behind, according to Esquivel. When that happens, she says, it falls on the company to build new donorship. The priority for UO Opera now, though, is to increase exposure.

The programs’ directors say that it has fallen upon the nation’s opera companies to educate the younger generations in order to generate new audiences. Eugene Opera and UO Opera lack the administrative staff to facilitate these efforts, though they take every opportunity to reach out to the community.

Eugene Opera has broadened its reach through social media platforms and its Opera Workshops held for teens. UO Opera has recently taken trips with its students to Astoria, Oregon, to perform, and they’ll be going to a winery near Roseburg, Oregon, to present some material in a couple of weeks.

In the past, UO Opera has had the opportunity to put on a production of “Puss in Boots” for a local elementary school, and they say that the kids loved it. If the elementary school called the Ensemble and asked if they could put on another production for the children tomorrow, Musgrove says, “You’d see the dust for them to be there.”

Other problems loom

While the small companies are fighting to build audiences, financial struggles are still fully present.

Esquivel is the UO Opera Ensemble’s only full-time employee, which means she not only directs productions but also facilitates promotions and donor relations. Castro is only a part-time coach for the opera.

Eugene Opera rehearses Maria de Buenos Aires. Catalina Cuervo as Maria. (Courtesy of the UO Opera Ensemble)

The UO Opera Ensemble operates without the support many smaller schools provide their opera programs. The ensemble doesn’t have its own theater, and Beall Concert Hall lacks sufficient lighting, stage area and has no orchestra pit, Esquivel says. In the past, the ensemble rented out the Lane Community College Performance Hall, but that facility is fully booked next year and won’t be available.

The lack of facilities frustrates ensemble members like Paige, who says she feels a better performance hall would benefit the program in many ways. “It would be much easier to access our performance space more frequently,” she said.

Like most opera companies, UO Opera relies heavily on donations. But it doesn’t enjoy the standard donor model employed by top-flight opera companies, which typically receive large donations in the hundreds of thousands from a handful of patrons.

Esquivel recognizes that any donation amount has its value. “I’ll take $1,000. I’ll take $100. I value any amount that’s given because that shows me that there’s interest and support for my kids,” she said.

Eugene Opera faces similar budget woes. It has only four full-time staffers and ranks near the bottom of Opera America’s budget-ranking system, Rauer says. She drafted 11 different budgets for the 2018-2019 season, searching for ways to save as much money as possible.

Eugene Opera receives most of its funding through fundraising efforts, Rauer says, which is their top priority. The company holds occasional promotional events for the public to attend with a $125 ticket price.

It never turns down a donation. Rauer says one donor sends them $5 a month. Broadening donorship is important, according to the directors, but facilitating it requires more work than the standard model. Increasing staff is another goal, but one that could only be met when the companies finances allow it.

Just last year, Eugene Opera was in financial turmoil, and had to shut its season down. Now, aided by the community’s response to the season’s cancellation, it’s more optimistic about its future. With painstaking financial planning and its most recent production selling out, the company surpassed its fiscal goal for the season, even making some extra money that will be dedicated towards next season’s budget. UO Opera passed its fundraising goals for the year as well, according to Esquivel.

“We’ll do what we have to do, and I will do what I have to do to make sure that my kids get the experience they need,”  Esquivel said.

The prominence of the historic art in Eugene has been in transition in recent times, but the passion and love for opera held by its community, and all the work that they put in, is what has kept it alive.

For some, like Musgrove, opera transcends art. “Some people have religion; I have the opera,” she said. “Opera is a very addictive thing; if you go and it strikes a special chord in your soul, you’re lost for life.”

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