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Patrick Dillon takes a tour of the newly opened National Opera Center.

"It's a dream, it can't be true:" the dewy sounds of the Rosekavalier finale, magical even in piano reduction, greet me as the elevator doors open onto OPERA America's just-christened National Opera Center, seven floors above the mid-Monday, midtown Manhattan bustle. The lobby doors are open, too; and, countering Strauss's delicate aural moonlight, a welcoming sun beams through the enviably clean windows behind the reception desk. A lovely scent of spanking-newness permeates the air.

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"Yes, everything's brand-new," confirms Marc Scorca, OPERA America's President and CEO and my gracious tour guide this afternoon. And like Strauss's Sophie and Octavian finding their obstacle-beset romance suddenly in glorious fi1l bloom, he betrays a lingering trace of wonderment that a cherished dream of his and his organization has indeed come true.

The first major step toward its fulfillment, back in December 2005, covered a lot of ground: 360 km., to be exact--the distance from OPERA America's former home in Washington, DC, to its new digs in America's operatic capital, New York City, on the 16th floor of a nondescript 22-storey office building at Seventh Avenue and 29th Street. But the dream's roots surely date back decades earlier, to 1970 and the founding of an organization that (in its own description) would "lead and serve the entire opera community, supporting the creation, presentation, and enjoyment of opera." New works would be fostered, production values enhanced, audiences broadened. OPERA America's Opera Fund, providing technical and financial support to the nearly 200 member companies in the United States and Canada, has over the years awarded more than US$11 million in grants to assist in the creation and development of new North American works. Today, OPERA America counts about 2,500 organizations and individuals on its membership roster. (All member companies of Opera.ca in Canada are members of its "big brother" to the south, too; and a glance at the "People" section of the fall issue of the glossy OPERA America quarterly contains reports from Edmonton Opera, Toronto's Opera Atelier and the Canadian Opera Company.)

The move to New York, where local membership ranges from the mighty Metropolitan to small, scrappy downtown companies like Chelsea Opera and Empire Opera, was essential to OPERA America's vision. "[We wanted to] have more frequent contact with members who travel here to hold auditions, meet with managers and publishers and conduct other essential industry business," Scorca says. Putting under one roof everything they--and opera's most essential ingredient, the singers--needed was the logical next big step. "It took us a while to adjust to being in New York--we needed some restaffing, and we had to get acquainted with the real-estate market here. But we put together the team and began work."

Finding the perfect space took time--and the search wound up right under the organization's own New York roof, on two lower floors that once had housed a furrier and more lately a warren of office spaces. Andrew Berman's New York architectural firm took these unpromising-looking 2,320 square meters and fashioned the handsomely customized dream-come-true through which I'm now being guided.

Central to the new space is the stylishly spare, clean-lined, two-storey-high audition/recital hall. "We took out the steel and cement between the two floors to create the volume," Scorca explains. "We have three remote-controlled HD cameras so we can stream what's happening here. Let's say we're holding an audition here, but the stage director is out in LA and the conductor is over in London: they can still be part of the audition. And a young singer can leave with a DVD of the audition to share with a teacher or coach. We've got 12 lighting presets; we've got surround sound and a 16-foot screen. The space is great for recitals, workshops, readings of new works, lectures--a whole variety of activities." Two evenings of the previous weekend featured a rock opera, with 10 singers and five band members onstage and a capacity audience of just over 100 for both shows. Is the space fit for a full production, with sets? Scorca's answer is a fairly firm negative: "We want to discourage nails in the stage floor!"

Audio and video are controlled from an adjacent booth that's also linked to one of the center's 10 vocal studios. "Some singers prefer recording in smaller spaces--hence this one." Like all the others, it's equipped with a shiny new Yamaha piano, one of 14 grand, baby grand and upright--variously located on the two floors, and kept shipshape by weekly visits from a tuner. "Those pianos are a joy," remarks conductor Richard Cordova, part of the Chautauqua Opera audition team working in the large, first-floor rehearsal hall. Some of the rooms, like this one, boast natural light (and the accompanying street noise); others are windowless and soundproof. (Singers' preferences vary: some--especially the New Yorkers--find outside noise an essential part of a lesson or a coaching.) Auditioning vocalists are given a free 10 minutes for warming up, but if they need more time or a more intensive work session, they can pre-book a studio online, or simply rent a vacant one, on the spot if available.

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One of the studios bears the name of Beverly Sills, and other spaces, too, have famous honorees. Theres a Colin Graham Green Room and an Ardis Krainilc Research and Reference Library, the latter looking particularly comfortable and inviting, the current issue of Opera Canada easily visible among the many periodicals and newspapers; it's home to the Julius Rudel Archive, and other special collections are on the way. At a second, adjacent library, a singer can borrow a score and (courtesy of iTunes) follow a recording at one of the two computer-equipped listening stations. (Two more computers--iPad and smartphone compatible, of course--are available at work stations in the business center.) There's a seminar room, or "learning center," with a SMART Technologies interactive whiteboard system, allowing for all kinds of classroom work,"and when you're done, you can mail the whole thing off"

OPERA America's administrative offices are here now, too, on the upper floor, along with a boardroom and a kitchen. And, not to forget the visual side of opera, there are "mini-galleries" of set design on both floors. "So much of what happens here is auditory, but we have a biennial competition for young designer/director teams, and the winners are featured here," Scorca tells me of the display upstairs.

The center opened for business on. Sept. 4 and held its official ribbon cutting on Sept. 28; a guest register recorded roughly 2,000 visitors within its first five weeks. Even the enormous intrusion of Hurricane Sandy didn't really slow things down: in fact, it added to the center's activity, with a New York City Opera team, flooded out of its rented downtown offices, gratefully taking over the board room for two weeks in November, right after the company finished rehearsals for its latestVox Contemporary American Opera Lab in various Opera Center spaces. The COC was an early visitor, and Edmonton Opera and Pacific Opera Victoria have made reservations, too. October saw the release on CD (and via download) of The OPERA America Songbook, an ambitious collection of 47 songs commissioned by the organization from an equal number of distinguished composers, including Canada's Howard Shore.

And the center's bustle is only increasing. "November was very, very busy, and December is high audition month," Scorca says. "People are still figuring out that we're here. And we've got a little more to go with our fundraising. This is a US$14-million project, and right now we're at about US$11 million. I still see a lot of potential in a lot of places. I don't see this as a completion--I see it as just the beginning"
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Title Annotation:Letter from New York
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Dec 22, 2012
Words:1290
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