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Posted at 11:54 AM ET, 01/11/2012

On the American-ness of “American Opera”

The Washington National Opera is pledging resources and energy to the creation of new American opera. Opera, that is, based on contemporary stories with relevance to a younger audience. The goal is to “develop the art form of opera composing in the United States,” said Christina Scheppelmann, the company’s director of artistic operations. “We always seem to be looking too far back. I think to set it as a parameter changes the thinking: what is a contemporary, relevant story to tell?”

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy writing about the various definitions of “American opera,” and opera companies’ perennial search for it (in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even the Opera Quarterly, which unfortunately is not linked for free on-line). But in the wake of the WNO announcement, it seemed an interesting question to raise with the company’s music director, Philippe Auguin, who is an eminently cosmopolitan European.

“It’s not a piece that could have been done in Europe,” Philippe Auguin says of Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy.” What makes this opera ”American”?

For Auguin, speaking by phone from Vienna where he is currently conducting Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera” at the Vienna State Opera, the hallmarks of American opera are theatricality, accessibility, directness -- all things that set it apart from European contemporary fare.

“I saw An American Tragedy at the Met,” he said, referring to the Tobias Picker opera that the company commissioned and premiered in 2005. “It’s not a piece that could have been done in Europe.” The reason, as he saw it, wasn’t the story itself, but “the dimensions of the piece, where you have to put music under such a strong story and so much text. And of course a composer has to be allowed to use perhaps more simple material, and has to be allowed to repeat it. In Europe… [where] it’s not perhaps really admitted to repeat simple material, it could be seen as weakness... Because people judging the modern piece in Europe would tend to say [the composer] was repeating himself.”

Whenever American opera is mentioned, American musicals are not far behind. “This tradition of musicals in the States,” Auguin continued, “gives more understanding for stage work with music.” And a goal is often “to win the audience instead of leaving the audience on the side of the road. A certain accessibility.” This isn’t, he feels, the case with new European opera.

Certainly American musicals are becoming more and more prevalent in the opera house. Once, it was notable when an opera house staged Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd;” today, it’s joined “Porgy and Bess” and other Broadway-born works in the American operatic canon. WNO is co-producing Show Boat with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Francesca Zambello, WNO’s artistic adviser, avers that it “offers a wonderful gateway to what is American opera. Are musicals our American opera, and how have we evolved them in different directions?” Zambello has been increasingly active in musicals; her recent openings include musical versions of “Rebecca” and “Little House on the Prairie.”

These ideas about American opera continue to emerge and spotlight the mixed motivations and understandings that companies have about creating new work. On the one hand, you want to keep the art form alive and vital. On the other, new work is often seen as a way of reaching new audiences -- even as opera houses bewail the fact that it’s harder to sell tickets to an unfamiliar contemporary production. The idea is that people who haven’t been to the opera before, particularly younger people, will come out to see a new piece; “it will be more interesting to a younger audience,” Scheppelmann says. It’s not clear, though, how far that idea is born out by actual box-office receipts. (Feel free to chime in if you have evidence on this front.)

My own thought is that “American-ness” is less important than simply the fact of generating new work. What are your thoughts? Is it particularly important to define “American opera” as opposed to “European opera?” Are you more likely to go see a new American work than a new European one? How much is “American-ness” in opera a question of form (the kind of music), and how much one of content? I’m not sure there are definite answers to some of these questions, but it would be interesting to know if there is any kind of consensus in the opera-going community about them.

By  |  11:54 AM ET, 01/11/2012

 
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