The State
of
New Opera

by Karren Alenier

Because of the tremendous 
number of obstacles that 
stand in the way of putting 
a new opera on stage, 
there are few world premieres 
in any one year and fewer that 
stand on the cutting edge

This survey will be limited to what's new in opera by composers and librettists born or based in the United States. Given that this writer, while working in the field of contemporary opera as a relatively new librettist, columnist, and critic, does not have a degree in music, she has consulted with the music blogger Charles Downey of ionarts.blogspot.com. Downey, who has a Ph.D. in music, recently taught a course at CatholicUniversity on twentieth century opera.   

THE BASICS: WHAT IS OPERA?

Despite the paucity each year of new operatic works, the topic of contemporary opera and what is at the foreground of trend-setting work is fraught with controversy and a lack of a single reference source that tracks everything that might be labeled opera. So let's open the first can of worms and address the problem, what is opera beyond the basic description of being a theatrical art form that includes singers, musical instruments, sets, costumes, and occasionally dance. According to the highly successful composer/librettist Mark Adamo who has been publicly articulate on the topic, opera features unamplified singers who have a wider range and better control over their voices than musical theater singers. Typically, Adamo says, the opera composer orchestrates his work while the composer of a musical probably does not. Generally speaking, the music of opera presents a singer with more challenges than does a musical where singers are not trained to handle difficult passages that might deal with range and timbral shading.  

Many experts in the field of opera hold fast to the principal that every word in opera is sung and, in the contemporary operatic world, that is the only difference. However, if opera is defined as completely sung through, what about Mozart's The Magic Flute, a type of opera calledsingspiel that includes passages of spoken dialogue? Does the expert call Mozart's The Magic Flute music theater or opera? Since Flute is one of the most performed works in the current operatic repertoire worldwide, one would have to say this is opera and it stands as a model.

The second can of worms opens to the question what is music theater and how does it differ from opera and from what Americans know as the Broadway musical? Except for offering the work of Stephen Sondheim who is known not to be a fan of opera, one can only say that the music of music theater is richer and more complex than the Broadway musical but usually employs singers who are not trained in operatic practice. Still, what does it mean when a big opera company like Houston Grand Opera known for its commitment to new operatic works and active commissioning of new works produces Sondheim's A Little Night Music? And by the way, Night Music won a Tony for Best Musical. Music theater clearly sits in a gray area between opera and the Broadway musical. To further complicate this, it doesn't take much digging in New York City before one meets trained operatic singers who are looking for jobs in music theater and Broadway musicals.

The third can of worms is how does one discover the details about world premiere productions of operas? The best resource is the Internet but it's a needle-in-the-haystack situation. Opera America, which occasionally issues studies on contemporary opera, only reports world premieres by its members. News magazines such as Opera News provide mostly the high profile premieres. Flying below the radar are premieres being produced in colleges, universities, and small theaters. Typically these hard-to-find opera premieres get little if any publicity.  Charles Downey suggests if there is anyone who sees a majority of new operas in any season that it might be Alex Ross of The New Yorker magazine. However, one doubts that Ross would see many, if any, of those small-scale world premieres that take place outside of New York City.

A fourth problematic area is defining what qualifies as a bona fide world premiere. There are small companies like American Opera Projects and Opera Theatre of Virginia that occasionally announce world premieres but the productions are not fully staged with costumes, sets, and orchestra. Since Charles Downey and this writer agree it is not fair to the collaborators for critics to review such presentations, this survey will err on the side of caution and only mention opera premieres that are or will be clearly identifiable as fully staged productions.

WHAT'S NEW THIS SEASON?

It is only with these disclaimers that a reasonable writer can offer a list of the current season or any past season for that matter.  

Survey of New Operas by American Composers & Librettists

September 2005 - August 2006

9/10/2005 

Germany: Erfurt Theater

Waiting For The Barbarians

Philip Glass/Christopher Hampton

10/1/2005 

CA: San Francisco Opera

Doctor Atomic

John Adams/Peter Sellars

11/18/2005

TN: Nashville Opera

Surrender Road

Marcus Hummon

12/1/2005

CA: Red Cat in Disney Concert Hall

Wet

Anne LeBaron/Terese Svoboda

12/2/2005

NY: Metropolitan Opera

An American Tragedy

Tobias Picker/Gene Scheer

2/24/2006

IN: Indiana University Opera Theatre + others

Our Town

Ned Rorem/J.D. McClatchy

3/4/2006

TX: Houston Grand Opera

Send

Michael John LaChiusa

4/26/2006

NY: Julliard School of Music

Miss Lonelyhearts

Lowell Liebermann/J.D. McClatchy

5/27/2006

CA: Los Angeles Opera

Grendel

Elliot Goldenthal/Julie Taymor + J.D. McClatchy

What this list shows is that four large opera companies —San Francisco, Metropolitan, Houston, and Los Angeles — are premiering work by known artists.  

SFO presents a second commissioned work by the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Adams in collaboration with director Peter Sellars. Adams' third opera Doctor Atomic, which is about the atomic bomb physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, heads the list of new opera excitement. After Adams' second opera The Death Of Klinghoffer opened at SFO, protestors picketed because Adams gave as much musical eloquence to the Palestinian terrorists as to their victims. It is not risking much to say that Doctor Atomic is bound to stir up a storm of reaction because of the subject matter — the World War II bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. However, Adams is known for tackling tough political subjects with innovative musical approaches. Another example for which he won the Pulitzer Prize is On The Transmigration Of Souls, an orchestral and choral work commemorating the grief of those lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

On the other coast, the Met will premiere Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy, which is based on the Theodore Dreiser novel of the same title. Tragedy will be Picker's fourth opera and his second collaboration with librettist Gene Scheer who worked with Picker on Thérèse Raquin. Emmeline, a controversial story about incest and Picker's first opera with libretto by poet J.D. McClatchy premiered at the Santa Fe Opera to critical acclaim. Given the conservatism of the Met, one does not expect either controversy or cutting edge innovation. However, given the success Picker has accrued, opera fans anticipate something special and something satisfying.  

For March 2006, Houston Grand Opera has squeaked into the limelight with a late announced commission for a one-singer opera written for Audra McDonald by Michael John LaChiusa. According to Andante magazine on August 15, 2005, the working title is Send and the story centers on a woman seeking romance over the Internet. LaChiusa is labeled as a composer of music theater such as The Wild Party and Marie Christine. His music is lyric but layered with what he calls texture, making a rich mix of carefully chosen dissonance and rhythms.

Meanwhile, back on the west coast toward the end of this season, expectations are high for LA Opera's Grendel with music by Elliot Goldenthal who has written successfully for orchestra, theater, opera, and film. What makes this premiere especially exciting is that the libretto (based on John Gardner's novel by the same title) is by the acclaimed director Julie Taymor with assistance from J.D. McClatchy. Judging from the interview this writer did with McClatchy, where McClatchy describes how he suggested that the monster Grendel be the only character that speaks modern day English so the audience would empathize with the man-eating killer, one would expect this work to teeter on the cutting edge for that artistic decision alone. However, given Taymor's creative rendering of Mozart's The Magic Flute first in Europe and more recently at the Met as well as her blockbuster Broadway success with the musical The Lion King, one expects an extraordinary opera experience.

UNDER PUBLICIZED WORKS WITH CACHET

Flying under the radar in academic theaters are premieres of Our Town and Miss Lonelyhearts, two operas respectively by the established composers Ned Rorem and Lowell Liebermann. Both of these operas have a libretto written by J.D. McClatchy.  

The opera Our Town based on Thornton Wilder's play of the same title has been co-commissioned by seven theaters including Indiana University Opera Theatre where the world premiere will take place, Lake George Opera, the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute of the North Carolina School of the Arts, Lyric Opera Cleveland, the Aspen Music Center, and the University of Maryland Opera Studio. Rorem, known as a master of the art song, is the creator of seven short operatic works including Miss Julie (based on Strindberg's play by the same name). This writer recently attended multiple performances of Rorem's opera Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (based on Gertrude Stein's text by the same title) and eagerly awaits the opportunity to see and hear Our Town.

Julliard School of Music has commissioned Miss Lonelyhearts for its 100th year anniversary celebration. Liebermann received glowing reviews in 1996 for his opera based on the Oscar Wilde novel The Picture Of Dorian Gray. According to critic Alain Dornic, Liebermann's Dorian Gray features music built on the twelve-note row but is lyrically appealing and has echoes of Benjamin Britten and Philip Glass. Miss Lonelyhearts is Liebermann's second opera. Because McClatchy has been involved with writing nine libretti and has worked with many successful artists, the fact that McClatchy sought the collaboration with Liebermann, who had written his own libretto for The Picture of Dorian Gray, makes this writer think that Miss Lonelyhearts will not only be appealing but also cutting edge.  

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK IN EUROPE

Waiting For The Barbarians by Philip Glass with libretto by Christopher Hampton is off the radar with its world premiere happening in an unknown town in East Germany.Barbarians is based on the novel of the same title by 2003 Nobel Prize-winner John Maxwell Coetzee of South Africa. The opera, which is true to the novel, deals with the cruel and unjust treatment of prisoners of war in an unnamed country. Because Glass has stated to the press that he sees his opera as a criticism of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, one can imagine audiences in Europe will be eager to attend this production, especially after hearing that the opening night audience gave a 15-minute standing ovation to the performance. U.S. audiences will have a chance to see this controversial new work at the Austin Lyric Opera in January 2007.

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK IN THE UNITED STATES

The final two world premieres of the 2005-2006 season (but probably just a representative iceberg tip of those hard-to-find new works) are Surrender Road by the country/pop singer-songwriter Marcus Hummon and Wet by composer Anne LeBaron and poet Terese Svoboda.  

In commissioning and premieringSurrender Road, Nashville Opera is expecting to connect with young people. The through-composed opera about a boxer will be staged in an acoustically state-of-art hall and not in Nashville Opera's usual theater. Director John Hoomes calls Surrender Road a crossover work that includes pop, jazz, and classical music. The small instrumental ensemble accompanying Surrender Road includes strings, saxophone, and piano. Composer Marcus Hummon, who is a Nashville songwriter with chart-topping hits for such groups as the Dixie Chicks, wrote the orchestration with some help from classically trained friends. Whether music of Surrender Road meets operatic standards set by Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess or the mass-appeal more recent opera Deadman Walking remains to be known, but one Nashville Opera insider who has heard excerpts says the music is a cross between Puccini and Billy Joel.  

Male composers dominate the world of opera. Women composers get few commissions. Therefore the financing for Wet has been cobbled together by grants, mostly from California music foundations. In February 2005, composer Anne LeBaron worked on Wet with poet Terese Svoboda at the BellagioCenter in Italy where new works are nurtured and a select few are invited. LeBaron is known as a music innovator, including sounds produced electronically. In one operatic work called Sucktion, she alternates voice with vacuum cleaners. Her first opera Pope Joan, based on the poetry of Enid Shomer, was a ballet opera. With Wet, one can expect controversy (the diminishing supply of water worldwide) and innovation.

THE MYSTERY MINI-OPERA

One additional note for the current season is that Colorado Opera publicized that an unnamed new work by composer Jake Heggie and playwright Terrence McNally would premiere in celebration of the opening of the new Ellie Caulkins Opera House. The work was the mini opera At the Statue of Venus, a one-woman work that had originally featured a performance by Renee Fleming.

WHAT WAS NEW LAST SEASON?

To better understand the landscape of contemporary opera, it is important to see what premiered last season (2004-2005) and what is on the books for the near future.

Survey of New Operas by American Composers & Librettists

September 2004 - August 2005

10/22/2004

ID: Opera Idaho

Nosferatu

Alva Henderson/Dana Gioia

10/29/2004

TX: Houston Grand Opera

Salsipuedes, A Tale of Love, War And Anchovies

David Catan/Eliseo Alberto/Francisco Hinojosa

10/31/2004

NY: New York City Opera

Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Charles Wuorinen/Salmon Rushdie

12/11/2004

IL: Lyric Opera of Chicago

A Wedding

William Bolcom/Arnold Weinstein

1/28/2005 

DC: Washington National Opera

Democracy: An American Comedy

Scott Wheeler/Romulus Linney

2/5/2005

OK: Tulsa Opera

Elmer Gantry

Robert Aldridge/Herschel Garfein

3/4/2005

TX: Houston Grand Opera

Lysistrata, Or The Nude Goddess

Mark Adamo

3/8/2005

CA: Chamber Opera of USC

Broken Pieces

Daron Aric Hagen/Barbara Grecki

3/17/2005 

CA: Opera UCLA

Lorca, Child Of The Moon

Ian Krouse/Margarita Galban

5/3/2005

UK: Royal Opera

1984

Lorin Maazel/Thomas Meehan + J.D. McClatchy

5/7/2005

MI: Michigan Opera Theatre + others

Margaret Garner

Richard Danielpour/Toni Morrison

6/15/2005 

NY: Encompass New Opera Theatre

Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On

William Banfield/Karren L. Alenier

In last season's world premiere calendar, Houston Grand Opera presented two new works: Salsipuedes, A Tale Of Love, War And Anchovies by the U.S. based Mexican composer David Catán and Lysistrata, Or The Nude Goddess by Mark Adamo. Lysistrata is HGO's 33rd world premiere. No other U.S. opera company tops that record. Things could change with David Gockley, HGO's general director of 33 years, assuming the general director position at the San Francisco on January 1, 2006.   Also one should take note that Lysistrata is Mark Adamo's second opera and his second world premiere at HGO. By 2006, Adam's first opera Little Women will have enjoyed over thirty productions in the United States and abroad. This runaway success is highly unusual and begs the question when does an American work enter the opera repertory?

The 2004-2005 list gives a good representation of opera companies working hard to support new works by American composers and librettists. New York City Opera publicizes itself as "a sanctuary for American opera" devoting one third of the company's repertory over the years to American opera. Operas it has commissioned include Aaron Copland's The Tender Land and Ned Rorem's Miss Julie. Additionally, NYC Opera annually showcases new operas in development. This is how Scott Wheeler's  Democracy: An American Comedy came to WNO director Plácido Domingo's attention.  

Lyric Opera of Chicago presented in world premiere A Wedding, Lyric Opera's third commissioned opera by the celebrated composer William Bolcom and librettist Arnold Weinstein who died September 6, 2005. (Bolcom and Weinstein also created McTeague and A View From The Bridge for Lyric Opera of Chicago.) Doctor Atomic will move to Lyric Opera of Chicago, a co-producer of Adam's new opera, at some future date.  

Suffice it to say each opera season offers its list of new work that receives little public attention. Last year's season of under-the-radar work includes Nosferatu by composer Alva Henderson and poet Dana Gioia, Elmer Gantry by composer Robert Aldridge and librettist Herschel Garfein, Broken Pieces by composer Daron Hagen and librettist Barbara Grecki, Lorca, Child Of The Moon by composer Ian Krouse and librettist Margarita Galban, and Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On by composer William Banfield and poet Karren LaLonde Alenier.

NEW AUDIENCES FOR OPERA

Similar to Our Town, Margaret Garner was co-commissioned by multiple theaters — Michigan Opera Theatre, Cincinnati Opera, and Opera Company of Philadelphia. What is remarkable about this new work is the astounding runaway success at the box office and the huge number of first-time opera attendees. Charles Downey says that new works, such as Margaret Garner appealing to African-Americans and Salsipuedes appealing to Hispanics, are reinvigorating the field of opera.  

HIGH PROFILE LIBRETTISTS

Out of the ten opera premieres identified in last year's season, four had high visibility librettists: Haroun And The Sea Stories by American composer Charles Wuorinen with British novelist Salmon Rushdie who wrote the original story and the libretto, Democracy: An American Comedy by composer Scott Wheeler and the award-winning playwright Romulus Linney, 1984 by renowned conductor-turned- composer Lorin Maazel with collaborating librettists Thomas Meehan who wrote the book for the Broadway smash-hit musical The Producers and the prolific poet-librettist J.D. McClatchy, and Margaret Garner by composer Richard Danielpour with Nobel-prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison who based the libretto on her novel Beloved. Similarly, one might say the current season also offers four operas with high visibility librettists: Doctor Atomic's librettist is the acclaimed director and MacArthur Foundation fellow Peter Sellars, Grendel features Julie Taymor as the lead librettist with J.D. McClatchy. Although McClatchy may not be as well known Taymor and Sellars, he is a rising star in the opera world with his name on two more operas: Our Town and Miss Lonelyhearts for a total of three world premieres in this season and one in last season. Since librettists are typically treated as second-class partners who rarely get equal shares in royalty payments and often are not named in publicity, it is significant that new operas are premiering with prominent librettists.

OPERA BY AMERICANS ON PRESTIGIOUS EUROPEAN STAGES

Like Waiting For The Barbarians, 1984 went on stage abroad at London's Convent Garden and is slated in 2008 for La Scala. It is nevertheless rare that operas by Americans debut in Europe, but one should note that Nixon In China is lauded as the American opera paving the way for other operas by Americans making their way to European stages. Perhaps it helped that the novel 1984 on which the libretto is based was by the British novelist George Orwell. Additionally, there was no commission for this work and some of the funding for 1984 came from composer Lorin Maazel's company Big Brother Productions.

OPERAS ON THE HORIZON

Because opera projects often languish (lack of funding, fights between the collaborators, inability to get a theater company interested in the project, etc.), many projects, particularly the precariously funded, fail to get advance publicity. Any list provided will see only a portion of the operas in development making it to their world premieres.  

Community outreach opera projects are also happening on a small and large scale. For example on the small scale, Central City Opera has commissioned a one-act, bi-lingual opera En Mis Palabras (In My Own Words) by composer Roger Ames and librettist Jeffrey Gilden pointed at grade school students. On the large scale, the German government has announced September 6, 2005, commissioning of an opera about soccer that involves celebrated avant-garde director Robert Wilson and German singer-songwriter Herbert Groenemeyer.

Some opera companies are scheduling experimental operas that defy categorization like the performance art of Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson. For example, Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh in April 2006 will present two short multi-media operas. The first is Red Dust with music by Matthew Rosenbaum and texts by Gertrude Stein and the 18th century Chinese novelist Tsao Hsueh-chin (author of Dream of the Red Chamber).The second is The Jackleg Testament with text and music by Jay Bolotin.

Survey of New Operas by American Composers & Librettists

Operas in Development

7/22/2006

NY: Glimmerglass Opera

The Greater Good

Stephen Hartke/Philip Littell

11/11/2006

CA: Sonoma City Opera

Every Man Jack

Libby Larsen/Philip Littell

12/21/2006

NY: Metropolitan Opera

The First Emperor

Tan Dun/Ha Jin

2006/2007

NY: Nickel City Opera

Alone With The Gods

Persis Anne Vehar/Leo Farley and Persis Vehar

2007

OH: Cincinatti Opera

Freedom Is Calling

Adolphus Hailstork/David Gonzalez

Spring 2007

TX: Fort Worth Opera

Frau Margo

Thomas Pasatieri/Frank Corsaro

2007

MN: Minnesota Opera

The Grapes Of Wrath

Ricky Ian Gordon/Michael Korie

Spring 2008

NC: University of North Carolina

Picnic

Libby Larsen/David Holley

2008 - 2010

?

The Bone Setter's Daughter

Stewart Wallace/Amy Tan & Michael Korie

?

NE: Opera Omaha

Dream Horses

Anthony Davis/Yusef Komunyakaa

?

FL: Pensacola Opera 

The Widow's Lantern

David Ott/Kyle Marrero

?

NY: Encompass New Opera Theatre

The Theory Of Everything

Lior Navok/Nancy Rhodes

What this list of operas in development shows is several opera companies presenting a first world premiere (Nickel City Opera, Pensacola Opera, Opera Omaha) and a few long-established big companies continuing to produce world premieres (Metropolitan, Glimmerglass, Minnesota). Of course this is good for the long-term health of opera.

Probably the most innovative composer on this list is Tan Dun (known for his music score accompanying the popular film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Tan Dun uses paper and stones to create certain sounds in his orchestral treatment. Perhaps the Met is turning over a new leaf. Also, the Met has already announced that the new Tan Dun opera will feature tenor Plácido Domingo.

Veteran opera composers on this list include Anthony Davis (X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, New York City Opera, 1986), Ricky Ian Gordon (The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, Houston Grand Opera, 1996), Libby Larsen (Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus, Minnesota Opera, 1990), Thomas Pasatieri (The Seagull, Houston Grand Opera, 1972), and Stewart Wallace (Harvey Milk, San Francisco Opera, 1996). First time opera composers include: Stephen Hartke, Lior Novak, and David Ott. Again, so many first-time opera composers on a list of future works are good for the health of opera. One might note that last season's list of first timers numbered three: Danielpour, Krouse, and Maazel and two of them were high-profile artists. In this season's list, only Marcus Hummon is a first-time composer of opera.

Prominent librettists on the upcoming opera list include Philip Littell (Dangerous Liaisons) and Michael Korie (Harvey Milk). Also, several prominent writers of other genres appear in the role of librettist on the list of future operas: 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, bestselling novelist Amy Tan, and National Book Award winner Ha Jin.  

Intriguing subjects include Leo Farley and Persis Vehar's libretto for Alone With The Gods which is about the Beat poet Charles Bukowski, David Gonzalez's libretto Freedom Is Calling based on the life of Underground Railroad conductor John P. Parker, and Nancy Rhodes' libretto for The Theory Of Everything which unfolds a human story involving the physics superstring theory of ten simultaneously existing dimensions. Also interest runs deep for the success of the collaboration between African-American composer Hailstork and Hispanic playwright/performance artist Gonzalez given that their commissioning opera company is Cincinnati Opera, a co-commissioner of Margaret Garner. Although it is prevailing wisdom that opera stories should be those most people already know, more original libretti are making their way to the opera stage. Notable among original libretti include those collaborations composer John Adams had with poet Alice Goodman — Nixon In China and The Death Of Klinghoffer — and there is no reason to think that the libretto for Doctor Atomic with collaborative work by Sellars and Adams will not meet the standard already set.

CURRENT TRENDS IN OPERA

According to statistics from Opera America, more than 200 operas premiered at North American companies between 1990 and 2000. Since Opera America includes Canadian opera companies in their statistics, this writer asked Opera America for a list of world premieres in North America starting in the 2001-2002 season to see what percent was occurring in the U.S. 

In the last five years, Opera America counts 66 North American world premieres with 43 occurring in the U.S. As one would imagine, the average number of world premieres dropped dramatically after the 9/11 terrorism attack and the downturn in the economy. So if one uses Opera America stats and assumes that an average of 20 world premieres occurred each year between 1990 and 2000, then in the last five years, there is an average of 13 North American and 7 or 8 U.S. per year. If one keeps in mind that Opera America only has data on their members and the accuracy of the data is heavily dependent on input from those members, then this data in combination with what this writer has ferreted out gives a reasonable accounting of world premieres in the United States in the current and past seasons.

Collaborative commissioning by theater companies is fantastically wonderful not only because it helps with the problem of funding the creative development of a new work but also provides more than one stage and usually more than one production for a new work. One would expect to see more commissions by multiple theaters in the future. Opera developers will also be watching what happens when Anthony Freud takes over from David Gockley at the Houston Grand Opera. One suspects that there will be fewer risks taken on new works as Freud labors to expand HGO audience and make HGO more successful financially. Although current General Director Pamela Rosenberg at San Francisco Opera has taken risks with programming and commissioning new American works, San Francisco opera-goers and critics are not particularly known for sophisticated tastes. However, opera aficionados do not limit themselves to their own home turfs and Gockley is bound to bring a certain number of devoted fans to anything new that he programs.

When Virgil Thomson wrote and premiered Four Saints In Three Acts (1934), the opera some musicologists say marks the beginning of American operas that have entered the opera repertory, his tonal music, infused with melodies that sound like hymns and folk songs, was considered outside what serious classical music should be. Strong dissonance was the style that commanded respect. In the current landscape of new opera, dissonance still commands respect, but the dominant operatic style is tonal music with dissonant shading. In the music of Philip Glass and later composers such as John Adams, a subtle style of dissonance built on a technique called Minimalism renders a pleasing lyric sound. In fact as Charles Downey reminded this writer, one can hear this kind of music in popular films today and filmgoers like it.

Over the course of the twentieth century, opera producers found that audiences would not support strident sounding operas. The people who could afford the price of an opera ticket overwhelmingly wanted Puccini, Mozart, and Verdi. In fact, many opera fans still do, but in order to build audiences for the future, opera producers now realize that only with new work and new productions of old work tuned into the tastes of the younger generation will opera as an art form survive.

Relative to building new audience, what one has to consider beyond the accessibility of the music, the translation of the words by surtitles, and the cost of a ticket is the libretto. Among the old school of opera dominated by composers, the skinny on the street was you could use any text, including a telephone book. Preferably the fewer the words, the better. Besides, as the old thinking went, if you take a known story, either from myth or literary canon, and dumb it down, the audience will fill in the blanks. And worse of all in this approach to opera is the assumption that opera singers, known not to be great actors, often cannot get the words across – so KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!).

If one listens to what the younger generation tunes into, one might be surprised to find they have their own street operas with tremendous raw emotion spewing out of the mouths of Rap artists. This is not to say more words are better, but only to point out that a balance must be struck between music and words and that better judgment must be exercised to produce high-quality libretti. So in today's landscape, it is exciting to see recognized poets and fiction writers working collaboratively with artists who know their way around the theater and the world of opera. Such collaborations as director Julie Taymor teaming up with poet J.D. McClatchy hold great promise.

Cover Photo - "An American Tragedy" - Metropolitan Opera

Karren Alenier is a poet and librettist

 

©2005 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

october 2005
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