NEW YORK — Classical music, some say, is in decline. I say, over and over, that it isn’t. Classical music is just fine. It’s the institutions that perform it that are having trouble.
Traditional orchestras and opera houses are struggling to keep up funding, ticket sales, and audiences — and to figure out how to present new work, which is essential to any art form. Alas, the core audience of these traditional institutions isn’t always interested in venturing outside of the canon. Recently, someone informed me that this season at the Washington National Opera was the worst he had ever seen — because it included two works, Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” (from 1949) and Philip Glass’s “Appomattox,” that he didn’t know.
Of course, new work has an audience. It just may not be a traditional opera audience. This weekend in New York I went on an opera binge that started with a sold-out matinee of Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” at the Metropolitan Opera and continued with several other sold-out productions of new works at much smaller venues across the city. The audiences tended to be energetic and enthusiastic — but they were coming to see work on a different scale than a typical opera house, and with different content. (I saw an opera about human trafficking, one about a Mexican drug cartel and one that, in the best traditions of modernism, proved its edginess by remaining defiantly impenetrable, but it involved a hotel, an unhappy couple, a suicide and disco lights.)
The main presenter of all of this work is the Prototype Festival, which, in only four seasons of existence (the 2016 edition ran from Jan. 6-17), has become something of a beacon as a generator of high-quality new operas. Co-founder Beth Morrison has been identifying and producing new operas since 2006, and her stable has included works by Missy Mazzoli (“Song From the Uproar”), Paola Prestini (whose “Oceanic Verses” was seen in Washington in 2012), Mohammed Fairouz (whose works in progress include “The New Prince” for the Dutch National Opera, with a libretto by David Ignatius), and David T. Little, whose acclaimed “Dog Days” has appeared at the Fort Worth Opera, the Los Angeles Opera and in a revival at this year’s Prototype Festival.
All of these mainstage commissions and opera-house collaborations demonstrate one reason for Prototype’s rapid ascent to prominence: The opera world is desperate to find good new operas and new audiences, and it isn’t sure how to go about it. Mainstage commissions are an expensive gamble, costing upward of a million dollars and creating, all too often, work that fails to make an impact or to get the best out of an adventurous young composer. Beth Morrison’s production company helps midwife mainstage projects (such as Fairouz’s “Bhutto,” scheduled to premiere at the Pittsburgh Opera in 2018) or develop autonomous pieces such as “Dog Days”; it has a sizable roster of touring productions that an opera company can take over lock, stock and barrel.
All of the cool companies are doing it. Opera Philadelphia’s Aurora Series for Chamber Opera develops and presents work — such as “Yardbird” or its recent Andy Warhol opera — in collaboration with other small companies; and smaller-scale operas will become even more integral to the company when it launches a new opera festival next year. The Los Angeles Opera started a chamber opera series five years ago, and it began collaborating with Morrison not long thereafter; Los Angeles has seen “Dog Days” and “Song From the Uproar,” and in June, it will present the Morrison-developed world premiere of “Anatomy Theater” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, which will subsequently be seen at Prototype. The San Francisco Opera will open its new, smaller Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera in February; its program includes some chamber operas, such as “Svadba-Wedding,” which Opera Philadelphia offered in 2013.
Some companies, of course, remain invested in creating new work themselves — such as the Washington National Opera, which has, in recent years, been offering plenty of new chamber opera thanks to its American Opera Initiative, a commissioning program created in-house with plenty of workshops. Most of these works partake of the aesthetic of the mainstage house — which is exactly what Prototype doesn’t do.
Prototype’s aesthetic runs more to dark, edgy subjects — such as the devastating “Angel’s Bone” by Du Yun that I saw on Saturday. What would happen if two angels fell to Earth? In this work, they are first lovingly taken up by a human couple who are delighted at their find — but then “prune” the angels (an excruciating scene) and effectively pimp them out to their community, allowing access to people who do gradually crueler and crueler things to them.
The anguish of the hurt and battered angels and their horrific treatment is conveyed in a well-paced libretto by Royce Vavrek, who has become a kind of Metastasio of the downtown opera scene, and in music that ranges across a spectrum of sound — from a fine a cappella chorus to the hum of electronica, presented here by Julian Wachner, the music director of the Washington Chorus and the head of music at Trinity Wall Street in New York. Disturbing, powerful and original, effectively using electronics and video, the opera ended with the evil wife tearfully pleading her case on daytime TV, adding the final nail of credibility to a work that gave me nightmares, yet one that I would nonetheless see again.
“Angel’s Bone” was a showpiece of a range of work, not all of it developed here. “The Last Hotel,” by the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, has been seen at the Royal Opera House and the Edinburgh International Festival, where one reviewer found it “searingly powerful.” Dennehy’s music, filled with restlessly active sawing strings in nonrepeating patterns, is certainly both searing and powerful in places, but Enda Walsh’s opaque libretto kept me from connecting to the characters or their disjointed story, for all of its cute touches.
Whatever your view of the individual work, the Prototype Festival demonstrates conclusively that opera is a perfectly natural vehicle for contemporary stories and contemporary art. The real issue is one of scale, and, perhaps, taste — does the opera world as it exists want to embrace this size opera and this kind of subject? David Gockley, now in his last season as general director of the San Francisco Opera, controversially described his company’s brand of opera as a “bourgeois art form” in a radio interview this summer. That’s not what you’ll find at the Prototype Festival. What it offers is less opera of the future than opera of the present. Whether or not opera’s institutions are able to embrace it remains an open question, but it’s very much worth seeing.