Young Santa Claus stands amidst skeptical characters

For You, O Under­graduate Soprano: A Look at New Opera in America

I was lecturing at a music school in February, and during a Q&A with the opera students, one asked me, “Is opera thriving? Collapsing? Mutating?” To which I answered, “Yes.”

A nice laugh line, but it was a serious question and deserved a more thorough answer than the one I gave. So, undergraduate soprano in Greencastle, Indiana, this one’s for you. It’s from the perspective, for good or ill, of a composer-librettist of four operas who’s lived in New York for 20 years – and it has to start a little further back. Remember Faulkner advising, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So let me talk about there and then before we suss out here and now.

Fifty years ago, opera in the U.S. was a museum of the grand European past.

Fifty years ago, opera in the U.S. was a museum of the grand European past. All classics, all the time! Companies did commission (or, far less frequently, revive) new work in English. The New York City Opera, in particular, championed pieces like Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah (1953), now one of the continent’s most frequently performed operas. But more typical was the Metropolitan Opera: To celebrate its centennial in 1980, it offered its first new commission to a composer since it had requested, from Samuel Barber, his opera Antony and Cleopatra fully 30 years earlier.

Flash forward to now, when new operas seem to be written as rapidly as old opera houses fall into crisis or close. (And then reopen!) What happened in between? Well, the ’90s, for one. I suggest that it was two scores – the 1992 Met commission of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, and, four years earlier, John Adams’ utterly different Nixon in China for Houston Grand Opera – that reminded artists and listeners how profoundly sung music could speak to us about the way we live now. Adams and Corigliano had responded to patterns that had been changing for decades. As audiences for new opera dwindled during the ’60s and ’70s, composers looked for inspiration not from Frankfurt-schooled aesthetic theorists but from Indian ragas, from traditional Romantics, even from inventive pop stars – writing less for the academy than for themselves.

In 1995, North American companies introduced 11 new works. Last season: 40. Forty!

Technology, too, helped break new ground. First came CDs. (Remember CDs? Me neither.) Next came supertitles, those projected translations that returned narrative surprises even to operagoers who didn’t speak a word of Italian. These trends, among others, broadened the stream of new works from a trickle to a flood. In 1995, North American companies introduced 11 new works. Last season: 40. Forty!

I’ve been invited, and brought a bottle or two, to this particular party. In December, my fourth opera, Becoming Santa Claus, was one of those 2015–16 premieres, three of which (a record!) were produced by the newly adventurous Dallas Opera. Becoming Santa Claus followed my The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (2013, for San Francisco) and Lysistrata (2005, Houston and New York), which themselves followed the piece that began my career. In 1998, Houston commissioned my first opera Little Women; it has since joined Porgy and Bess, Candide and Susannah as one of the most frequently performed American operas of the past 50 years.

So, a golden age, right? Singers have never been better. Composers still write in a thousand colors and styles: artistic orthodoxy? Qu’est-ce que c’est? Companies now know that new opera is the room where it happens. Groups like Fort Worth Opera and Opera Philadelphia have morphed into forward-looking festivals in which new work assumes pride of place. And all the world’s a stage: You’re as likely to hear a new piece in the back seat of a limo or an abandoned bus station as in a proscenium theater.

So, thriving, mutating – check! Why, when asked if opera was collapsing, did I say yes?

I only wonder if grand opera is. It’s an amazing time for new opera making, less so for big opera houses. Does my experience point to a disconnect between what artists are writing now and what traditional theaters are designed to produce?

A painting of a collapsing house from the set of Hopper's Wife

A scene from Long Beach Opera’s 1997 premiere of Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie’s Hopper’s Wife

For good or ill, traditional theaters were constructed to embody an aesthetically centrist, purely acoustic, and grandly scaled idea of what opera is. These theaters weren’t built for amplification, and it’s surprisingly tricky to make sound design work in them, which is why, technically, they serve pieces of the past better than the present. They are also prohibitively expensive to run, and there’s no way of making them more economical. That’s why this one closed and this one’s teetering.

Moreover, what’s inspiring the most inventive new artists is, often, chamber-scale opera – maverick in sensibility, often electronic in timbre and most effectively staged outside a large house. I’ve heard and loved pieces for four amplified vocalists accompanied by a MacBook Pro that walloped you like Wozzeck. But not only does such a piece not need the traditional theater, it makes such a house seem passé.

I’m torn. On the one hand, everything I’ve ever done has been for the traditional opera house. I love what these voices and players can do in spaces that size. (I also love that they’re better paid, and treated, than when they sing in bars.) And yet, you wonder how long the big-house paradigm can last. New York City Opera, when I was composer-in-residence there, performed 16 shows a year in a 2,200-seat theater before closing. It’s reopened for a four-show season and this spring is giving the New York premiere of a four-character chamber work, Hopper’s Wife (by two good friends of mine), in a 200-seat theater uptown. I have highest hopes for the show and the space. It also feels a little like the end of an era.

But this is just nostalgia, isn’t it? And way too Manhattan-centric. The über-famousness of a house like the MET obscures how atypical it is. True, until they ceased in the ’80s, the MET’s (and, to a lesser extent, NYCO’s) national tours were the highlights of the opera season in the cities they visited: It was New York opera; it was The Real Thing! But – as the rest of this article attests – now the moxie in new opera is coast to coast. And New York is different, too – yes, in its opera-in-bars movement as well as in its big houses. Alongside Hopper’s Wife, NYCO is also introducing to New York Florencia en el Amazonas in a 1,100 seat acoustic theater. That makes its programming, in its inaugural season, 75 percent contemporary. (Yay!) Dallas Opera has built a thrilling 2,200-seat theater in which it introduced not only Becoming Santa Claus but the brilliantly successful Moby-Dick, which (aptly, given the title) is as big as they get. The mammoth MET has three world or New York premieres in the pipeline, including its first work by a woman in 113 (!) years.

So: thriving? Collapsing? Mutating? Yes. In other words: messily alive.

Mark Adamo

Mark Adamo is the composer-librettist of the operas Little Women, Lysistrata, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and Becoming Santa Claus. …more 

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4 Responses

  1. Hank says:

    How would you suggest that ethically and morally the University and Conservatory systems continue to pump out tens of thousands of singers, if most of them cannot break into the big/grand opera scene any longer, and it is not thriving? Chamber opera- opera in bars- opera for the neighborhood- Guerilla opera cannot pay the bills for these singers coming out of Juilliard, Manhattan School, and other places. It just is a hard sell to anyone, and I think one must be very weary of becoming an opera singer right now as a primary career, if one wants to make any sort of living wage. I mean, yay for the small, dirty, crazy up front opera in the small space. Boo to a $250 stipend for a run of a show and $100,000 of debt to pay off. Universities and conservatories cannot think this is an ethical system any more.

  2. Glad to hear that new operas are being performed more often. I must throw in this promotion for a wonderful composer, Fredric Kroll, whose 1965 opera “The Scarlet Letter” has yet to be staged with full-orchestration anywhere. Here is an excerpt from our world premiere recording:

  3. DeLuca Wannabe says:

    A couple of minor quibbles and major disagreements with Mr. Adamo’s article here. First, regarding the Met’s history of producing new works: he’s forgetting Marvin David Levy’s “Mourning Becomes Electra”, which also premiered at Met in their new home in Lincoln Center… I believe later in the same season as Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra”. Not to mention the rich tradition of American premieres of other works.

    Secondly, I would disagree with his assertion that “traditional” opera houses and companies were focused on a “purely acoustic” theatrical experience and aesthetic. Even in the grandest opera houses of old, there were plenty of dramatically engaging productions, filled with both great singing actors and “cutting edge” (for the time) theatrical effects. The fact that companies have more technology and options for lighting and stage effects doesn’t necessarily translate to more “engaging” or “theatrical” opera. It’s just more bells and whistles. The difficulties these theaters/companies are facing as they struggle to survive has less to do with a dogged reliance on a “purely acoustic” experience, as it does with the changes in Western musical culture and sensibilities, and changes in what we define as “entertainment”.

    Thirdly, Mr. Adamo’s assertion that “singers have never been been better” is simply, demonstrably, untrue. There are certainly some extraordinary singers today, in various voice types, singing various repertoire. But there is nothing like the staggering depth and breadth of talent that existed a few generations ago, even in smaller/more regional theaters. (Check out Will Crutchfield’s article, “Vocal Burnout at the Opera”.)

    Chamber opera is great, and can be every bit as thrilling/engaging to an audience as a more “traditional” big-theater/big-company experience… Small scale works written for more intimate spaces and smaller voices are a valuable part of the tapestry of musical/theatrical life… But let’s not just dump the previous 350+ years of composition and opera performance in search of the edgy and new!

  4. Mark Adamo says:

    Hail, DeLuca W.; thanks for reading! A few quibbles with your quibbles; 1.) While, indeed, Marvin David Levy’s piece followed the Barber in the spring of ’67, the larger point remains that stagings of new work at the MET were rare as unicorn sightings in the decades following. 2.) Perhaps I wasn’t clear about what I meant with the adjective “acoustic.” I didn’t mean that opera in previous decades aspired to the condition of a concert in costume; merely that the theater and the singers who trained to perform in them assumed the necessity of natural, rather than amplified, sound. 3.) Your (and Will Crutchfield’s) point about vocal quality could merit an entire article, which I am unqualified to write. I do think it gets harder and harder for singers to recapture, say, Strauss’s ideal timbers and styles as we move into a second century characterized by recorded sound; as Esa-Pekka Salonen recently put it in the Times, every day we awaken to is a day in which we’re now day further removed from Beethoven and his world. It’s worth remembering that one reason that the Scottos and Tebaldis of the world were so convincing in Puccini and Leoncavallo was that they lived in that same language; and were removed from the composition by mere decades; that they were, in effect, singing contemporary music in their own tongue. Perhaps what I should have said is that young American singers, in new American work, have never been better, simply because there aren’t as many barriers (of time, language, style) separating the artist from the character. And, 4.) No one’s advocating dumping the past! But let’s remember, too, that time spins only forward: one could place your last sentence in the mouth of someone attending the premiere of Salomé. Thanks again for reading…warmly, Mark

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