Chautauqua Institution and its opera company and conservatory, like performing arts organizations industry-wide, are navigating challenges and uncertainties as the field emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a period of deep reflection about the future of opera in America, including at Chautauqua which hosts North America’s oldest continuously operating summer opera company and 4th oldest opera company in the nation.
The current model for opera at Chautauqua requires subsidy from Institution operations on an annual basis that has been controlled historically to the extent possible through repeated production modifications. As expenses continue to grow due to rising labor, housing, security, and supplies costs, it has become more difficult each year to present major professional productions while we also experience downward trends in attendance that mirror national trends. Additionally, Chautauqua Institution returned to full programming in 2022, but has not yet regained its historic levels of attendance. The combination of these factors led the Institution to develop careful multi-year budget plans that imagine a significantly reduced budget model for opera.
The Institution is engaging patrons in conversations about a renewed vision for Chautauqua Opera Company and Conservatory as an incubator of new American operatic and vocal works and, more importantly, the artists who will perform them. In this evolving model, Conservatory students will still receive rigorous training in canonical works. Students will also work alongside Chautauqua Opera Company’s young artists and guest artists in workshops of new operas commissioned by and scheduled to premiere at other companies. Audience members will be invited to attend workshop presentations multiple times per summer. In this model, no major productions will be presented at Norton Hall, which has been the home of Chautauqua Opera for generations. Norton Hall will continue to be a critical venue for arts, education and community programming at Chautauqua.
“We’re in conversation with our community about this vision, which aims to create a sustainable model that will yield impact and relevance for operatic and vocal works at Chautauqua,” Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill said.
“While the vision has been met with support from many patrons and staff alike, it also represents changes that will be experienced as a loss among our opera patrons and certainly the staff, some of whom will lose long-time seasonal or year-round employment as we shift from full productions to new work incubation,” Hill said.
Hill added that, while the scale of both the Opera Company and Conservatory will be reduced in 2024, the full transition to the new vision would happen in 2025.
Chief Program Officer Deborah Sunya Moore says the current context calls us to imagine the role Chautauqua is best positioned to play in the training of singers and the performance landscape which is becoming clearer in the field.
“Chautauqua’s mission specifically calls us to promote ‘…excellence and creativity in the appreciation, performance and teaching of the arts,’ and our vision to nurture artists who can participate in the development of new works leans into this promise,” Sunya Moore said.
Chautauqua Opera Company’s general and artistic director Steven Osgood is recognized as a leading champion of contemporary American opera, having conducted world premieres of more than two dozen operas and fostering the careers of more than 80 composers and librettists through initiatives such as American Opera Project and during his tenure at the helm of Chautauqua Opera Company. Marlena Malas, Director of Chautauqua Opera Conservatory, who was recently inducted into the Opera Hall of Fame, is the preeminent educator in the field.
“Absorbing such a significant cut in the operating budget of the Opera Company and Conservatory is devastating in many ways,” General and Artistic Director of Chautauqua Opera Company Steven Osgood said.
“It means a company of almost 100 years will no longer build and produce opera for the Chautauqua community, and it means the closing of our shops which have inspired artists to return to Chautauqua year after year. The artist roster of both Chautauqua Opera Company and Conservatory will be reduced as we strive to maintain the high level of training and performance opportunities that we have offered historically, and which have been a hallmark of Marlena Malas’ storied program for decades. The Conservatory leadership and I remain focused, though, on assuring that opera remains a strong component of the arts at Chautauqua. Our company’s track record with new works and the artistic assets we have to offer toward the development of new work position us well to contribute to the field. This contribution will be in the workshopping of new pieces, but even more so in the training of young singers who will be performing new works throughout their long careers after they leave Chautauqua,” Osgood said.
Over the next two months, program leaders will continue to engage in conversations with community members, artists, educators and others to hone and confirm the vision for opera at Chautauqua.
“One thing is certain,” Hill said. “Opera will remain an important part of the artistic mix and pedagogical priorities at Chautauqua. Our planning efforts and conversations intend to ensure that.”
About Chautauqua Institution
Chautauqua Institution is a not-for-profit, 750-acre community on Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York State, where approximately 7,500 persons are in residence on any day during a nine-week season, and a total of more than 100,000 attend scheduled public events and even more engage online via the streaming channel CHQ Assembly. Chautauqua is dedicated to the exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life through a program that explores the important religious, social and political issues of our times; stimulates provocative, thoughtful involvement of individuals and families in creative response to such issues; and promotes excellence and creativity in the appreciation, performance and teaching of the arts. The Institution launched its 150th Summer Assembly June 24, 2023, and will celebrate its Sesquicentennial in 2024.
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