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Side dishes: creativity in the opera house

One thing I’ve distilled from all my thoughts about new opera, big and small: it’s a shame that what we think of as “standard opera” has gotten so notably big. Here are these large companies with all these resources, and they are virtually prevented from actual experimentation because all their money is tied up in getting their main shows on stage.
(read more after the jump)

In Europe, by contrast, a lot of opera companies have workshop programs, from the “semper kleine szene” in Dresden to the expanded workshop series (blue "Premiere" tags) that the Berlin Staatsoper is developing this season in the Schiller Theater, its temporary home during two seasons of renovations to its Unter den Linden base. (These workshop productions, including works by Satie and Kagel, as well as Henze's "Cimarron," are some of the most interesting fare of Jürgen Flimm's inaugural season, and will form the basis of a new music theater festival in 2011.)

The idea of a major company presenting operas on varying scales shouldn’t sound unfamiliar in Washington, where the opera used to make use of the Eisenhower Theater as well as the Kennedy Center Opera House. Much of the unusual repertory that the Washington Opera (as it was formerly known) used to do was only possible because the operas were presented in a smaller theater, taking some of the pressure off selling tickets.

I think the real impediment is a way of thinking: the idea that going outside the box and being creative is a kind of extra perk, a nice thing after you've taken care of your core repertory and core audience. "You can’t run a theater without thinking about the number of seats you have," said the Met's Peter Gelb. "If we had the luxury of having a small experimental theater on the side, I would do all kinds of things that I can’t do here. But we have a 3800-seat theater, that operates at a huge deficit, huge financial costs, and I am limited to what I believe can work in that space."

The Met, today, can't afford to do anything extra. The question is, in the long run, whether companies can afford not to. At the very least, as WNO thrashes out the terms of its future relationship with the Kennedy Center, it would be exciting, even galvanizing, if someone with vision broached the idea of an annual production in the Eisenhower Theater. That way, the purported dream of doing an American opera every year might actually be financially possible.

By Anne Midgette  |  August 2, 2010; 6:07 AM ET
Categories:  opera , random musings  
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Europe has a lot more experimental performing arts because European companies, for the most part, are heavily subsidized by their governments. In the United States we are at the mercy of the ultra-rich to subsidize productions at the major opera houses that otherwise would never see the stage. While I am grateful for their contributions I really think that more help could come from the government to support such experimental shows.
In defense of Peter Gelb, we saw "The Nose" at the Met and were screaming with delight at the end of the show. Also, there were some opportunities around Washington to see some new or rarely performed and innovative operas. The Barnes at Wolf Trap has great shows in its intimate space. We went to Lorin Maazel's Castleton festival (thanks mainly to your comments after last year's season). We really enjoyed "The Beggar's Opera" in the tiny home theatre. It was really a fantastic feeling to be surrounded by all those young and glorious voices. We saw Tan Dun's " Tea: a Mirror of Soul" in Philadelphia this year and enjoyed it very much.
As far as WNO, I think they have had a decent share of modern opera in the last few years. “ The Consul”, “The Telephone”, Vanessa, “Sophie’s Choice”, “ Bluebeard’s Castle” , “Billy Bud”, “Peter Grimes”, “ A Street Car Named Desire”, “Of Mice and Men”, " A view from the bridge" are some of the operas that come to mind as shows that are not so popular but the WNO staged them and thus opened our horizons a bit.

Posted by: Mike-Klein | August 2, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

The size of the hall is certainly part of the problem. Also, I believe, opera companies have taught audiences that opera is a spectacle. Audiences expect large scale productions with elaborate sets, costumes and such. The extreme of this is The Ring.
What is some companies began to trat opera as primarily a musical art form? Not necessarily presenting works in concert but doing them in a way that put the music first and stripped out some of the elaborate (and expensive) production elements.

Posted by: killcare | August 2, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

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