Look: I don’t have to sell tickets. I realize that marketing departments have concerns that I may not appreciate. But I find the general stance somewhat perplexing. The Washington National Opera managed to do a robust box-office business with Philip Glass’s “Appomattox” two years ago and yet has fallen into the attitude that new opera is a hard sell, because “Dead Man Walking” and “Champion” did not do well the next year. This really is treating opera as if it were bread, acting as if all new opera is the same flavor, so if two of them don’t do well, it’s a sign that nobody will buy it — rather than a sign that, as was the case, those particular loaves weren’t all that great. One might think these things could be taken on a case-by-case basis — particularly given that classical music audiences these days are made up of far more single ticket-buyers than subscribers, so trying to please a common denominator makes less sense than ever.
In response to the dull roar of sameness blasting from WNO and the Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera and especially the Met (and please don’t hold up Nico Muhly’s new opera “Marnie” at the Met or Kevin Puts’s “Silent Night” at WNO as if these slices of focaccia represented a true dietary shift), I posted on social media, somewhat off the top of my head, a season one might stage in some alternate universe, of 10 works in a wide range of styles, all with substantial performance histories including, in most cases, recordings.
Jennifer Higdon: “Cold Mountain” (2015)
Laura Kaminsky: “As One” (2014)
Lori Laitman: “The Scarlet Letter” (2008/16)
Missy Mazzoli: “Breaking the Waves” (2016)
Meredith Monk: “Atlas” (1991)
Thea Musgrave: “Mary, Queen of Scots” (1977)
Kaija Saariaho: “L’Amour de loin” (2000)
Dame Ethel Smyth: “The Wreckers” (1906)
Kate Soper: “Here Be Sirens” (2012-14)
Du Yun: “Angel’s Bone” (2016)
Obviously, there’s room for improvement here. If I were putting a season together, I would try to include a wider range of time periods — adding Francesca Caccini’s “La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina” (1625), for example, or “La Sévillane” (1882) by Cécile Chaminade — and more of an international focus, with Unsuk Chin’s “Alice in Wonderland” (2007) or Olga Neuwirth’s “Lost Highway” (2003). Indeed, I quickly crowdsourced a whole second season and am well into the third based on the flood of responses I got on Twitter and Facebook. My greatest satisfaction came when a few people didn’t even notice the theme of my hypothetical program — in other words, these pieces are so clearly deserving of performance that they don’t need special advocacy. (Did you spot the theme? If not, go back and look.)
Many people said they wished they could go to this season. I do, too. This isn’t, alas, a realistic option in the real world: no opera company could afford to put on so many works that weren’t guaranteed successes at the box office. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom, although some companies — such as the Prototype Festival in New York and Opera Philadelphia with its new Festival O — are finding ways to demonstrate that it is possible to put on a lot of new work at the same time, and find an engaged audience for it.
And this led me to an interesting realization. I was much more excited about my hypothetical season as a whole than I might be about encountering any one of these works on its own in the context of a “regular” season, framed by “Carmens” and “Butterflies.” There may be a fundamental weakness in the way opera companies present new work: There is so much pressure on each single piece to get white-bread eaters to magically develop a new palate that it becomes somehow less appetizing. What stimulates the appetite is the sight of a rich assortment of different kinds of flours and seeds and rolls, sweet and savory — what you see when you go into any bakery. It works in opera as well: Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O is a case in point, with its cornucopia of different kinds of works, in different theaters, all over the city.
My original point, of course, was about diversity, and the lack of it, and how much more colorful a season might seem if it weren’t just devoted to works by the same white men. But what I ended up coming away with was yet more evidence of how flawed our current system is when it comes to presenting new work, by both men and women, and how locked in we are by our own preconceptions — or rather, by the preconceptions of the companies that purport to be the only way we are able to access the art form that we love, and want.