Part two of a two-part series

New American operas are going the way of smaller venues, on smaller scales

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010

Plácido Domingo wants more new American opera in Washington. As general director of the Washington National Opera, he holds this topic so close to his heart that he's willing to talk about it even as he boards an airplane, apologizing for the seatbelt announcements as he cups one hand over his cellphone to describe his plans for new works.

The financial crisis -- WNO's as much as the country's -- has claimed casualties. One: a planned new opera by Tobias Picker, based on Stephen King's book "Misery." Another: a revival of John Adams's seminal "Nixon in China." These plans have been put on indefinite hold while the company offers a reduced season of older works. "It has been frustrating for me," Domingo says, "not to do [a contemporary opera] every year."

Yet there is new opera in Washington. It just isn't, at the moment, at the Washington National Opera. To find it, it helps to lose preconceptions about opera as something big, grand and overblown. Mushroomlike, it springs up in smaller corners of the performing arts scene: in university theaters, black boxes or smaller opera companies, such as Wolf Trap, that present opera for considerably less money than WNO.

Although other major opera companies around the country are managing to put on new operas (Domingo's other house, the Los Angeles Opera, will present the world premiere of Daniel Catán's "Il Postino" this fall), they're not immune from the general financial pressure. A new opera production at a major company can cost millions of dollars; a world premiere adds another million or so to the price tag. Working on new developments at more realistic prices, the Washington scene may actually be a harbinger of the future of the field around the country.

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"I don't want to make light of the fact that coming up with a couple of hundred thousand dollars for us is a big deal," says Kim Witman of the Wolf Trap Opera and Foundation. "But when you put that up against the one-off cost of 'Moby-Dick' " -- a new opera by Jake Heggie that had a successful world premiere at the Dallas Opera on April 30, to the tune of several million dollars -- "this is still exponentially smaller."

Witman is working on Wolf Trap's second opera commission, "The Inspector" by John Musto and Mark Campbell, which will open at the Barns in April 2011. The first commission, "Volpone," by the same team, opened in 2004 and far exceeded expectations. The opera was so popular with audiences that Witman brought it back in 2007 during Wolf Trap's regular summer season; those performances were recorded, and the resulting CD was nominated last year for a Grammy.

Yet Wolf Trap isn't even a year-round opera company. The Wolf Trap Opera is an established summer program for young professionals, mainly recent alumni of the country's leading training programs.

But although the company had worked with "emerging directors, conductors, designers, scenic professionals," Witman says, "almost every aspect of our industry," presenting a new work was "the one piece that was missing." The Wolf Trap Foundation therefore decided to extend its mandate by commissioning a work to present during the regular season, independent of the summer program, cast with professional singers. It represents a huge amount of extra work for Witman, since there isn't really a Wolf Trap Opera in the fall and winter months: The company has only two year-round employees.

"I'm envious of colleagues in other cities that have big industry backing," Witman says of Wolf Trap's modest means. "But when you see things go south, you're like, 'I'm glad I wasn't relying on it.' "

Small is better. That's the message that's going around the opera world these days. Grand opera is big and thrilling, but it's hard to find the money to put it on. The price tag for "Amelia," an opera that had its world premiere at the Seattle Opera in May, was $3.5 million; a regular production there averages about $2 million. The company has now radically cut production costs for next season.

By contrast, the Long Beach Opera in California, a small company that focuses on new works in unusual venues -- it closed this season with Ricky Ian Gordon's "Orpheus and Euridice" staged in a swimming pool -- announced earlier this month that it was operating in the black, gaining subscribers and even slightly increasing its annual operating budget. The company's entire annual operating budget for 2011 is $1.2 million.

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