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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.

"Sometimes," Domingo says, "you find yourself with something that was not that good. How can you, when you commission a composer, say, 'You know what? I don't like it.' "

Opera companies have gradually come up with ways to forestall outright disaster. These days, a house putting on a new work will generally schedule at least one workshop well before the premiere, to give administrators and patrons an idea of what they're getting. "One million dollars is a lot to spend to be surprised," says Darren Woods, the general director of the Fort Worth Opera, who mounted "Before Night Falls" after its striking success in a workshop performance.

Increasingly, stage directors are working with the composer and librettist during the writing of the piece: Leonard Foglia on "Moby-Dick," Stephen Wadsworth on Seattle's "Amelia." Bartlett Sher is working with Muhly and Craig Lucas on their forthcoming opera.

"We're all learning that this is what we need to do," says the Met's Gelb. "It doesn't do any good to have a composition that doesn't have a dramatic arc to it."

All this collaboration tends to yield the operatic equivalent of Hollywood studio films: big, slick, audience-friendly fare aiming for blockbuster status, rather than indie-style creativity. At these prices, it's understandable. "Amelia" cost the Seattle Opera $3.5 million, about $1.5 million more than its usual opera productions. That's a big investment. A lot of it comes from patrons. And you want the result to make the patrons happy. That group isn't too interested in going outside its comfort zone. When the Metropolitan Opera staged Philip Glass's "Satyagraha" in 2008, subscribers initially turned back their tickets in droves. The show ultimately sold out after the Met did a special ad campaign targeting a younger audience that was more interested in Glass's music.

A success like "Moby-Dick" can create tremendous excitement and civic pride. "It's a real triumph," Pell says, "to have turned around an essentially conservative opera-going public to realize that a new work can be challenging and rewarding in a way that even a first-rate production of a standard repertory piece is not." A few days after the premiere, a patron called him offering money to commission another new work immediately. A similar thing happened at the Minnesota Opera: After Gordon's "The Grapes of Wrath" opened there in 2007, donors were so enthusiastic that the company was able to establish an initiative for contemporary opera over seven seasons, including two world premieres (among them Gordon's next opera, "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" in 2013).

The question is whether works carefully fashioned to appeal to an established opera-going public will reach anyone else. Many Seattle Opera fans, impressed by the level of detail in "Amelia" -- with its depictions of a Vietnamese village, a hospital room and a triumphant childbirth -- said they'd attended three and four times. But by the standards of a movie or play, the story of a hysterical pregnant woman obsessed with her father's long-ago death to the point of falling into a grief-induced coma was dramatically flawed, even hokey.

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Most new work doesn't endure, and this was as true in Verdi's day as in our own. It takes a lot of coal to produce a few gems. And without new work, opera resigns itself to a museum-like existence of curating the old -- and losing its creativity. But can the United States continue to afford $3 million creations that only a limited audience wants to see?

Yes and no. Opera is always going to be for a niche group of viewers. Yet some operas have in fact entered what Catán calls "the cultural conversation of this country." Glass's "Einstein on the Beach" and Adams's "Nixon in China" (originally co-commissioned by the Kennedy Center) have wide name recognition. "Einstein" was even cited recently on "The Colbert Report." These operas, however, represent more a challenge than a contribution to the post-Puccini mainstream.

Great art is born of artistic conviction. Popular hits are born of a system able to foster popular hits. Mainstream opera, at the moment, has significant difficulties in both areas.

Yet the continuing spate of new works shows that the field is at least poking at the idea of creativity, and audiences, however gingerly, are starting to go along with it. The field's next challenge is to find better ways to reward the good. The goal should be to get a successful work such as "Moby-Dick" out in front of a wider public more quickly -- not to create networks of co-producers disseminating operas that nobody really wants.


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