Developing new operas is an art in itself

The Metropolitan Opera announced in 2006, with much fanfare, the creation of a commissioning program. This Monday, more than seven years later, it is rolling out the first work to come out of that program, Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys,” an opera about a sex crime committed by people who met in an Internet chat room.

“I don’t know how I could have done it” without the Met commission, Muhly says. “They had the right combination of caring about it and leaving me alone, letting me stew in my own juices.”

(Julieta Cervantes/Photo: Julieta Cervantes) - David Pittsinger as Eugene O'Neill and Patricia Schuman as Carlotta Monterey in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2011 world-premiere production of A Blizzard On Marblehead Neck.

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To the outside world, this premiere — along with this month’s announcement that three more composer-librettist teams are being added to what has been rechristened the Met/LCT New Works Program — is the first sign that anything is happening with the Met’s commissioning program.

And yet things have been happening all along. The Met’s program — now described as a “collaborative workshopping program” — was created in partnership with the Lincoln Center Theater. The workshopping process was said to help determine whether a given work was more suited to performance by one company or the other (or neither; the $50,000 commissioning fee did not include guarantees of performance). With such a murky goal, and no concrete deadlines, it was small wonder that things took a while to materialize, and yet materialize they did. There have been read-throughs of work in early stages. There has been mentoring of composers and librettists. And there have been a few workshops, most recently in May, when Scott Wheeler’s “The Sorrows of Frederick,” set to the late Romulus Linney’s adaptation of his own play, was performed by professional singers for a handful of people, all of whom were involved in the project.

The Met has not been known as a champion of the new in recent decades, though Peter Gelb, its general manager, has worked to bring more recent opera to the Met stage. “Basically I said [when I took over] that we were going to try to have one major new work on the stage every year, and we’ve done that,” he said by phone earlier this month, citing Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” and John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic,” as well as the world premiere of Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor,” a commission Gelb inherited. The Met is also co-commissioning Thomas Ades’s “The Exterminating Angel,” which will come in the 2017-18 season, and it has long been in discussion with Osvaldo Golijov about a new work, which Gelb says will be staged in 2018-19.

“The commissioning program is one aspect” of the Met’s commitment to the contemporary, he says, adding, “it never was a guarantee that new works were going to end up on stage at the Met.”

Most of the readings and workshops so far have ended at best inconclusively and at worst with a hint of acrimony. Michael Torke’s opera on the race car driver Ayrton Senna hit a roadblock: “As sometimes happens, there were things that we differed on,” says Paul Cremo, the Met’s dramaturg and director of new-work commissioning, who oversees the program. Rufus Wainwright’s ­opera “Prima Donna” encountered a similar obstacle: The official cause for it being turned down was that the libretto was in French, and the Met/LCT program sought to encourage new American works.

And Wheeler’s opera seems also not to be fated for the Met stage, although Wheeler remains exuberant about the experience. “I am totally delighted with the Met,” he says. “They shepherded and commissioned what is easily my best work.” Technically, Wheeler is now free to do whatever he wants with it — though there’s not much buzz in the outside world about the piece, since not even industry insiders were allowed to attend the workshop.

The Met program’s relatively low rate of success is not necessarily a failure of the program — in fact, not committing to see every piece through may be a virtue. One of the main problems of the opera commissioning system as it has traditionally existed is a lack of checks and balances: A company commissions a new work and then puts it on, with few opportunities along the way to pull the plug. Indeed, workshopping has become increasingly popular around the country as a way to make sure works that get to the stage are actually stage-worthy. In theater, of course, it’s more common for work to get tried out and then abandoned along the way, as Gelb is quick to emphasize. André Bishop, the Lincoln Center Theater’s director and his partner in this project, “thinks that one out of nine or 10 after six or seven years is a good record,” Gelb says.

Embrace of workshopping

The Washington National Opera, indeed, isn’t so far from the Met’s model with its own commissioning program, which also doesn’t commit to longer main-stage works. Its first stage involves assigning three young composers to write 20-minute works (the second annual iteration will take place Nov. 13); the second stage, in the spring, is a one-hour opera, again for performance at the smaller Terrace Theater. Since the WNO is under the aegis of the Kennedy Center, it has a freedom most American opera companies do not: a range of smaller theaters, enabling it to perform a wider range of work. The pressure and expense of a main-stage production in a large opera house are a lot for a first-time opera composer to carry.

“It’s terrifying and erotic and humbling,” Muhly says, “to walk in and see 80 people doing my bidding,” even when the passage they are all engaged in bringing to the stage “is some idea I had in the middle of the night in 2004.”

As the demand for new opera seems to be growing, and the workshopping process is becoming more accepted, it’s notable that many commissioning programs seem to be reinventing the wheel. The Philadelphia Opera, with a grant from the Mellon Foundation, has instituted a multi-year residency program for composers to enable them to learn the nuts and bolts of opera production; like the Met, the program is not goal-oriented, though there is an expectation the composers involved will produce some piece by the end of the experience.

Then there are organizations, such as American Opera Projects, that help create and workshop new work that can be presented by other companies. “  ‘Commission’ can still be a dirty word in the industry,” says Charles Jarden, AOP’s general director, although he also notes that the mood has been changing in the past few years. “Even at big opera houses with apprentice programs, the pressure of doing a main-stage production is always going to trump development work.”

The conventional wisdom about opera workshops, which the association Opera America has played a role in forming, is that a workshop can help not only improve the work but also build excitement among donors and audiences. This was certainly true for the Minnesota Opera during the development of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which went through a lengthy process of workshops before its premiere in 2007. Donors’ excitement about being part of the development was instrumental in the company’s subsequent establishment of a New Works Initiative with a commitment to produce a new or recent American work every year for seven years.

“Opera is complex enough to take on layers, like a snowball,” Jarden says, “and developing workshops, and showing workshops, and having capable press look at workshops, is a way to make everything better and grow the buzz.” (Two recent AOP projects will play in Washington next month: “Nora, in the Great Outdoors,” by Daniel Felsenfeld, at Urban Arias from Nov. 9-26, and Janice Hamer’s “Lost Childhood,” which the National Philharmonic will present in concert Nov. 9.)

But even in a form as established as opera, there’s no recipe for creative success. And some of the Met’s composers have felt cradled and inspired thanks to the open-endedness and privacy of the process.

“I had to get more sophisticated in a compositional way,” says Jeanine Tesori, who was known as a musical theater composer (“Caroline, or Change”) before receiving a Met commission. Paired with playwright Tony Kushner as a librettist through the Met’s middleman auspices, she turned to opera with new energy, furthered by subsequent commissions from director Francesca Zambello. She and Kushner wrote a one-act opera, “A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck,” for the Glimmerglass opera, and her holiday opera, “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me,” will have its world premiere at the Washington National Opera, in the Terrace Theater, in December. Now, she and Kushner plan to expand “Blizzard” into a full-length work for the Met.

“It’s hard without a deadline,” Tesori says. But she adds, “This invitation has changed my life.”

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