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American opera: Is anybody listening?

In Sunday's Washington Post: Is anybody listening? American opera faces crossroads as audiences for performing arts slide, by Anne Midgette (Part One of a two-part article).

New American opera: a photo gallery. (Click anywhere on the picture to advance.)

This spring, three new operas had world premieres at major American companies within a little more than five weeks, which spurred me to the above article about the phenomenon of new American opera. Below are links to my additional thoughts on those three premieres; each post includes links to other reviews from around the country.

"Moby-Dick" premieres in Dallas (earlier blog post).

"Amelia" at the Seattle Opera.

"Before Night Falls" in Fort Worth.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 26, 2010; 2:55 PM ET
Categories:  national , opera  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: "Amelia" at the Seattle Opera
Next: In performance: NOI


I'm looking forward to Part 2- excellent article so far. You've hit so many nails on the head (HURRAH for the mention of lack of training for opera composition!).

"And most companies, if they're going to go to the expense and risk of putting on a contemporary work, prefer to commission a new opera of their own"

When I've made my millions (not entirely sure how, just yet), I am going to create the Second Performance Fund which will co-sponsor revivals of new works. Perhaps it will also somehow fund opera composer training.

I was lucky enough to participate in a two week opera composition workshop, which was an interesting experiment, very hampered by resources, but a wonderful, rewarding experience.

"well-known book or movie that audiences will recognize"

When this works its fabulous - however, what do you think about the danger of getting a Cliff's Notes version where the music plays second fiddle (HEY-O!) to getting the key points and famous quotes of an existing work across? I'm curious about whether Muhly can sustain a full evening work, but am very grateful he's at least not doing 'Catcher in the Rye' or 'Caddyshack'.

Eagerly anticipating part 2.

Posted by: ianw2 | June 26, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Your article notes the boom times we live in for new American operas, then asks 'How many people are really listening?' Interestingly, your headline rewords this to ask a different question: 'IS anybody listening?'

The change is telling. It makes the headline more sensational, of course, and feeds the general myth, in which many people in the USA and UK seem to have become invested, that we live in the End Times For Classic Music.

It's an old story. In 1997 a title like 'Who Killed Classical Music?' helped an author sell books. It stands to reason that in 2010 titles like 'IS anybody listening?' can generate clicks. Still, if the original premise had been valid, no music should exist today for a blog to cover.

What bothers me most is that the reworded question contradicts the content of your article. It's not the question you really ask, yet it's for good reason that you ask the question you do rather than the one your headline advertises.

People *are* listening. That's how the Dallas Opera sells out its house. It's why the commissioning of new work, at great expense, is a realistic option for companies.

Figuring out how to give your audiences more of the new repertory they want presents challenges, to be sure. But these are welcome problems to have. Opera houses didn't have them so much two decades ago. Back in the days when the music supposedly got 'killed', recycling the same dozen or so operas was the way to go.

We live in exciting times for new music. Audiences are coming to realize that, and it makes everything even more exciting.

And that's why I'm enjoying your discussion, even if the headline looks like it belongs on some other blog. Thanks for the discoveries.

Posted by: AltonArts | June 26, 2010 6:42 PM | Report abuse

The “Second Performance Fund” for New American Opera was supposed to be supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, along with private patrons and foundations. Such second production funding – coordinated with Opera America -- was supposed to comprise a large role for the NEA Opera/Music Theater Program after it discontinued direct funding to composers and librettists almost a generation ago. Under 28 years of Reagan-Clinton-Bush cultural policy, the risk of opera commissioning was supposed to be shifted to the so-called “private sector.” In addition, over the past two years the NEA has shifted at least an estimated $200, 000 - $225,000 from it meager resources to support the new National Opera Awards, which Ms. Midgette spoke about this past week. As the “host”, further Washington National Opera funding supports these new awards to senior artists and administrators.

When the Washington Opera petitioned Congress to be renamed the Washington National Opera, the hope and the actual promise was that a Washington National Opera would produce an American opera every season. No one expected the Washington National Opera to be at the vanguard of American operatic commissioning – especially given its fairly poor record over 50 years, and especially the years that gave us on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage only Menotti’s “Goya” and Argento’s “Dream of Valentino” (both backed by the NEA and Opera America).

The hope and the promise was that a Washington National Opera would scour the American operatic landscape and bring the cream of regionally commissioned new American operas to the Kennedy Center, the same way the Kennedy Center’s Conservatory Project, rather than being an actual Conservatory, now brings the cream of young classical performing talent to the Kennedy Center for a few weeks a year.

As it turned out, the Washington National Opera reneged on its hope and promise. A generation ago, the Houston Grand Opera would visit Washington, D.C., along with La Scala, Bolshoi, the Paris National Opera, the German Opera Berlin, the Vienna State Opera, and the Mariinsky State Opera, and bring American operas such as Floyd’s “Willie Stark” and John Adams and Alice Goodman’s “Nixon in China.” But today, American operas are too declassee for the elitist Washington National Opera Board of Trustees (including the past Mayor of the Nation’s Capital).

Producing an American classical opera this coming season would have cost no more than producing one of the five operas being produced by the Washington National Opera next season, especially since the company is having its normal Kennedy Center rent – paid by many normal American opera houses -- forgiven by the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees. The real question is whether – in a few months, a well meaning but overstretched Kenneth R. Feinberg again throws in the towel and allows the company to stage no second production of an American classical opera in 2011-2012.
Brace yourself!!!

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 27, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

I, too, eagerly anticipate Part II. Thanks, Anne, for the research and thought that went into this article. AND for explaining once and for all there are so many productions of "Little Women." I never would have thought that the Conservatory student body would play such a prominent role, yet it makes sense now that you've said it.

I hope that more companies co-commission new work, as in the case of "Moby Dick," so that new operas are guaranteed at least 3 or 4 productions. Even some of the classics didn't catch on through the very first production.

Posted by: CruzerSF | June 27, 2010 7:38 PM | Report abuse

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