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

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Composers aren't turning up their noses at smaller venues, either. Even composers who have had success at bigger companies are paring down their offerings. Picker, who was to compose the canceled new work for Washington, had a big success in 1996 with "Emmeline" at the Santa Fe Opera, but the work has hardly been performed since. Last year, he created a version of "Emmeline" for smaller forces: The Cinnabar Opera, another small California outfit with 100 seats, staged it earlier this month.

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Even for big companies, a small format is a much more sensible way to try out a new work than a million-dollar production. The Metropolitan Opera's ongoing commissioning program, announced in 2006, amounts to giving seed money to composers and librettists to develop a work for a workshop performance, after which the work's future -- as opera, or as music theater -- will be determined. The fee is a fraction of the commissioning fee for a mainstage work -- a financial advantage, but also a reason that most of the projects have been proceeding very slowly.

The quintessential small venue is the university. Music schools, with lots of in-house talent and without the pressure of having to do well at the box office, are a natural laboratory for new opera. "We have research in science computers. Why not research in the creation of new work?" says the stage director Leon Major, who heads the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland.

The studio presented its third world premiere, "Shadowboxer," the life of Joe Louis, earlier this spring. (In the fall, it will present another recent American opera, Daniel Catán's successful "Florencia en el Amazonas.") "Shadowboxer," by Frank Proto, had a tuneful score that incorporated an onstage jazz band, but its biopic (or bio-opera) approach to its subject wasn't especially experimental. Like many new works, it could use another round of revisions; and here is where the money runs short. "The reason that operas are presented once and never presented again," Major says, "is that the composers want to rewrite, but no one has the money to cover the costs of the rewrite and the orchestration."

"I want to start a company called the Second Coming," he says, to present revised versions of new operas that need a second chance. "I don't think you can do a piece perfect the first time."

Major's first commission, "Clara," a bio-opera about Clara Schumann, has yet to receive a subsequent production. But the second, "Later the Same Evening" (2007), a co-commission with the National Gallery based on Edward Hopper paintings, also by Musto and Campbell, went on to the Manhattan School of Music, and in 2011 will receive its professional premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival. In this case, the lab appears to be working.

* * *

For many people, the word "opera" conjures up visions of Wagnerian helmets and "Aida's" elephants. But "opera" can denote a wide range of performances involving singing on a stage -- as well as video, spoken text and even, horror of horrors to a traditional opera lover, amplification.

On the cutting edge of opera are events like the VOX workshop the New York City Opera sponsors each year in New York to showcase new work. This year, it included "Evangeline Revisited" by Julian Wachner, the music director of the Washington Chorus. Wachner, who also conducted two of the 10 works presented, observes that the offerings "ranged from performance art to oratorio to true opera." He adds, wryly, "There were only two or three works that actually wanted opera singing."

This is a far cry from the "sweeping romantic tunes and cinemascopic orchestras" that, Wachner rightly says, characterize "opera" as perceived by the mainstream opera crowd. Indeed, real experiments can make opera administrators nervous. At the annual Opera America conference in June, a gathering-point for the field, one session specifically dealt with the more outre manifestations of the genre. It was titled, "But Is It Opera?"

There's actually no "right" way to write opera: Success runs the gamut from Philip Glass's avant-garde "Einstein on the Beach" to Heggie's more conventional narrative "Moby-Dick." But one problem that affects all new work in the field is the way young composers are trained. A composer in conservatory will learn a lot about new instrumental scores by contemporary masters. He or she is not likely to learn anything about opera, new or old.

"I don't think we ever discussed writing for theater," says Andrew Earle Simpson, a composer and associate professor of music at Catholic University, of his own education at prestigious conservatories like Indiana University.


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