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

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010; E01

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.

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.

* * *

"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.

"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.

* * *

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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