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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.

"We've developed a new genre which is somewhere between Broadway and opera," says Julian Wachner, the music director of the Washington Chorus and a composer himself.

Indeed, the American opera tradition is intimately bound up with Broadway, which saw the premiere of many 20th-century American operas: by George Gershwin, Gian Carlo Menotti, Virgil Thomson. Today, some composers move easily between the genres, such as Ricky Ian Gordon, who had a hit with "The Grapes of Wrath" at the Minnesota Opera in 2007 and just oversaw the first run of his autobiographical musical "Sycamore Trees" at Arlington County's Signature Theatre. Yet it's doubtful that an American opera today could hold a Broadway audience: In that regard, it's not popular enough.

Although opera has been regarded as more lowbrow and populist than other forms of music since the days of Rossini, and a composer such as Heggie still has trouble winning critics' respect with his tuneful and audience-friendly music, "popularity," in opera today, is something of a misnomer. A new opera gets only a few performances, the number determined years in advance of its premiere. And most companies, if they're going to go to the expense and risk of putting on a contemporary work, prefer to commission a new opera of their own, one that will attract critics, foundation money and local excitement, to putting on one that the critics have already seen.

Jonathan Pell, the artistic director of the Dallas Opera, says he was blown away when he saw "Emmeline," by Tobias Picker, at Santa Fe in 1996. Yet he didn't ask Picker if he could stage the work in Dallas; he commissioned him to write a new opera, "Therese Raquin" (2000). "Emmeline," meanwhile, has remained strikingly underperformed. So has John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles," which sold out the Met in 1991. In this field, being a hit doesn't always count for much.

"Moby-Dick" is about as popular as a new opera can get. Not only was it a box-office success, but before it even opened, Heggie's name also had attracted four co-producers: companies that helped defray the cost of the commission and the world premiere production, and that will ensure the work is performed again. Therefore, this successful production will be seen again -- in Adelaide, Australia, in September 2011, more than a year from now. It will also play in San Diego, San Francisco, and Calgary, Alberta -- in 2012. Other companies have since signed on to produce it; Plácido Domingo, in an interview, said he would like to see it at the Washington National Opera. But it will take several years for it to get here. This is hardly a way to build momentum.

Because they're planned so far in advance, subsequent productions of a new opera are based on a number of factors other than how the audience actually responds to it. Is the subject familiar: a well-known book or movie that audiences will recognize? Is it inoffensive? ("I can't fundraise for underage sex," one opera director said about Nico Muhly's forthcoming Met opus.) It's much easier to get your work performed if you write for a small orchestra, and you're guaranteed lots of conservatory performances if your story has a predominantly female cast, because conservatories have a preponderance of female voice students. Mark Adamo's 1998 "Little Women," which fits all of these criteria, has received dozens of performances around the world.

Meanwhile, Picker and Corigliano have created reduced scores, for fewer musicians, to enable their hit operas "Ghosts of Versailles" and "Emmeline" to be performed again at all.

"It's not a good idea," Picker says, "if you want to have a lot of performances, to write an opera based on a preexisting subject that nobody's ever heard of."

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There's no fixed formula for the creation of new work. "Moby-Dick" and "Before Night Falls" resulted from the composers' personal visions. Jorge Martin, the composer of "Before Night Falls," wrote it without a commission from an opera house, which is a good way to ensure that your opera languishes, unperformed, in a drawer. He was lucky to get it on stage.

"Amelia," in Seattle, had a more collaborative genesis. The company's general director, Speight Jenkins, decided he wanted to commission a new opera, winnowed down a short list of composers after listening to dozens of CDs, and specified to each that he wanted an American story, "a piece that's melodic but contemporary in sound," no more than two hours long, and without "a huge chorus or orchestra." Daron Hagen, 49, proved the best fit for Jenkins's particular mandate, though it took them months to thrash out a topic. (The opera is an original story based on the life of the librettist Gardner McFall, whose father, a pilot, died in the Vietnam War when she was a child.)

There are some glaring drawbacks to the way that new work gets on stage. "You don't have enough real opportunity to edit," says David Gockley, the general director of the San Francisco Opera, who both there and in Houston has been responsible for the creation of more new American opera than most of his colleagues combined. "There are no such things as previews and out-of-town tryouts." For a long time, therefore, commissioning an opera meant giving a large amount of money to a composer, waiting a few years, getting a score back from the composer and putting it on as written. This resulted in more than a few turkeys -- not least because few composers are trained during their studies in how to write opera.

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