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?
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.