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Is anybody listening? American opera faces crossroads as audiences for performing arts slide

It's a book, it's a movie, it's -- an opera? Some images of recent productions, including three world premieres this spring, show you can make opera out of just about anything.

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010

When "Moby-Dick," a new opera by Jake Heggie, was announced as part of the Dallas Opera's season in its brand-new Winspear Opera House, there was skepticism in the opera world. How was this long, discursive novel going to make it to the stage in any form that would get people to want to listen to it? It became a standard joke to ask which large singer would play the whale.

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Surprise. When it opened on April 30, "Moby-Dick" turned out to be the hit of the season. The audience screamed approval, and performances promptly sold out. A lot is happening in American opera. The past 20 years have seen an increasing number of new works, but this spring hit a critical mass with three world premieres at major American companies within five weeks: "Moby-Dick" was followed in May by "Amelia" in Seattle and "Before Night Falls" in Fort Worth. Coming up are "Life Is a Dream" in Santa Fe in July and "Il Postino," starring Plácido Domingo, in Los Angeles in September. And those are just the big companies. All this in spite of the dire financial climate that's forcing belt-tightening at arts institutions across the country.

Yet American opera is at a crossroads. A production of a new work at a large house costs millions of dollars -- hundreds of thousands in commissioning fees alone. It's a lot to spend on something geared toward the tastes of a narrow target audience, for which there is no mass demand, at a time of shrinking budgets.

Will new works help revive the opera field or help sink it under the weight of $3 million productions? At the keynote address of Opera America's annual conference in June, Daniel Catán, the composer of "Il Postino," lamented that new opera has not become "a part of the cultural conversation of this country." American opera may be finding its voice: Often, it's a neo-Romantic, melodic treatment of a contemporary topic, famous book or movie. The question is: How many people are really listening?

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The audience for the performing arts is slipping nationwide. But opera has proved to do slightly better than other classical forms -- orchestral music or ballet -- in terms of holding onto its audiences. It's got drama; it's got color; it's got size. And it's got, increasingly, new works and contemporary topics. In a recent NEA survey of live performance attendance, opera didn't exactly gain audiences, but at least it showed the lowest rate of decline.

"The only way that opera can survive is by expanding the repertory," says the Metropolitan Opera's Peter Gelb, echoing the sentiments of general directors nationwide. Gelb has commissioned new operas from the 28-year-old Nico Muhly, about a murder triggered by a relationship between two teenage boys in an online chat room, and the critically lauded Argentine-born Osvaldo Golijov, dealing with the relationship between science and religion. He also has started a commissioning program with the Lincoln Center Theater to foster works that could grow into musical theater or full-blown opera.

New opera is supposed to attract new audiences. But in fact, says Marc Scorca, the president of Opera America, "audiences that enjoy new opera tend to be audiences with long experience with traditional opera who long to see something new."

In other words: You can't just keep putting on "La Bohème" indefinitely. "The standard repertory that performs reliably at box offices has shrunk," Scorca adds. "Many of our opera companies . . . now are 25, 30 years old. They have done the standard repertory. To create excitement in the community, new work attracts attention."

But what kind of new work are they looking for? In the larger scheme of things, American opera's identity remains uncertain. Is it a form of creative expression for the country's leading composers, embracing newly contemporary models and subjects, such as John Adams's "Nixon in China"? Or is it an entertainment tailored to the tastes of a specific audience, a kind of glorified Broadway show with more limited appeal?

"Are we seeing really 21st-century operas written in 2010, or 19th-century operas written in 2010?" Scorca asks.

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