When it comes to work by living composers, the Met’s track record under Peter Gelb, its current general manager, hasn’t been terrible. It has staged Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” and John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic,” “Nixon in China” and (who could forget after all the protests it occasioned) “The Death of Klinghoffer.” We’ve had Thomas Ades’s “The Tempest.” Another opera by Ades, “The Exterminating Angel,” co-commissioned by the Met, is coming in 2017. We’ve had Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys,” while “Marnie,” Muhly’s second opera commissioned by the Met, will replace Golijov’s scheduled work in the 2018-19 season. There was Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor.” And the Met is just about to open a new production of Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de loin.” Yes, it could be more, but in comparison with the preceding 10 years at the Met, it’s not bad (“The Great Gatsby” and “An American Tragedy” notwithstanding).
What the Met has handled poorly has been the commissioning program that it launched in 2006 with much fanfare, in partnership with the Lincoln Center Theater. The idea was that composers would write works of music theater, without preconceptions about whether these works were “operas” or “musicals,” that would then be chosen by whichever company proved a better fit — or rejected, if the works proved to fit neither. It’s a complicated premise, because essentially it means putting in a lot of hard work with no guarantee, though admittedly the $50,000 commissioning fee sweetened the pot.
In 2013, I wrote a piece revisiting the program in which, surprised by the amount of work that had gone on behind the scenes — including a staff dramaturge, workshop performances and at least one completed opera — I essentially gave the Met a pass for not having produced more. I now think I was too soft. If you start handing out $50,000 commissions to major artists, there’s not a lot of excuse for coming up almost completely empty-handed at the end of a decade. Muhly’s “Two Boys,” which began under the program’s auspices, made it to the Met’s main stage; everything else was either rejected (like Rufus Wainwright’s “Prima Donna”), fell through, or simply withered on the vine, and no new blood has been added to the pipeline for years.
Gelb has always made it clear that the program never promised to get new work on the Met stage. Yet with hindsight, it’s clear that the idea was ill-conceived in some respects from the start. If you want people to write works on spec, then you need to work with much younger, less-known composers; Jake Heggie, Ricky Ian Gordon and Jeanine Tesori all ended up being much too busy with actual, concrete projects to make much headway on works in which the Met had only potential interest. And the partnership with the Lincoln Center Theater doesn’t seem, to the outside eye, to have meant much; certainly none of this projects has materialized there, and the composers themselves seem to have taken the commissions as encouragement to write an opera, rather than some ambiguous music theater form.
The reason I was so lenient, in my 2013 piece, is that the Met’s approach was trying to circumvent a fundamental problem with the whole process of commissioning operas: the idea that a house, once a commission is given, is locked into a commitment to a project, even if the result proves disappointing. I found it refreshing that the Met’s commissioning program wasn’t tied to specific goals, and allowed it to turn down work that didn’t suit it, like Scott Wheeler’s “The Sorrows of Frederick,” which was completed and workshopped under the commissioning program’s auspices, and is still looking for a home. (Wheeler, an accomplished opera composer, called it “my best work.”)
Yet for all the open-endedness of its approach, the Met exercised fairly tight control over the choice of subject matter. Gelb, some participants said, wanted American subjects, material audiences could recognize, but was wary of books. Add the challenge of getting rights to something like “Citizen Kane” (which Michael Torke briefly hoped to set), and the restrictions were considerable. This proved another fatal flaw: The composers were in effect producing work made to the Met’s measure, but which the Met had the right to turn down.
The Met may have ended up sowing seeds that bore fruit in other places. Adam Guettel, one of the original commissionees, is working on an opera for the Houston Grand Opera, based on H.G. Wells’s “Invisible Man.” Jeanine Tesori has so far written two operas, “A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck” for Glimmerglass and “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me” for the Washington National Opera; in a 2013 interview, she expressed a lot of gratitude to the Met for opening the door (and talked of expanding the “Blizzard” opera into a full-length work for the Met). Meanwhile, Gordon’s opera “Intimate Apparel,” with a libretto by the playwright Lynn Nottage based on her own play of the same name, has just had a public workshop in Cincinnati — which will be followed by a workshop at the Met in 2017. Still, the Met’s commissioning program has clearly not created a new model for the development of contemporary opera.
Golijov’s cancellation, to be sure, is not the Met’s fault as much as it’s part of that composer’s own tortured narrative. But it has become part of a story about the company’s struggle with contemporary opera — which may be less a problem of vision than of implementation. Opera is an unwieldy art form, and perhaps creating it is inevitably an unwieldy process that involves a lot of excess waste. But the Met’s story seems to reinforce the bottom line: if you’re an opera house and you want to help develop new work, whether you’re commissioning a big name like Golijov or trying something experimental, you have to find a way actually to perform it.
How another company has approached the issue: The Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative will offer a mini-festival Jan. 13-17, 2017, with the world premiere of the hour-long opera “The Dictator’s Wife,” by Mohammed Fairouz, and three 20-minute operas.