WHY NEW OPERA

The entire enterprise of creating new opera just seems so ephemeral and exclusive. Every season we see a freshly minted score at some U.S. company playing for a very few performances to a relatively select group of individuals. Then next season, while we hear nothing of the heralded new voice, we once again have Carmen, La Boheme and Aida to delight us. One begins to wonder if the process of creating new works is a futile endeavor. It is not. Investing in the creation and consumption of new opera is not only important as an exercise in supporting living artists, it is also vital to the survival of the form.

Unlike many other art forms, it takes a number of years for new operas to prove themselves as “hits” worthy of further productions. Because of the scale of resources needed to produce opera, assumed tastes of the core audience, and the complexity of much new material, opera companies are reticent not only to create new works, but also to take a chance on reviving recent scores. In days past, reputation and anecdote would be the best catalyst to carry a new opera towards a second production. Now, new media is helping to fight against the fleeting life of modern scores. The distribution of opera via television, recording, and the internet is helping not only to identify those new operas that capture the public imagination and deserve to continue on, but also to develop new opera-loving audiences who often don’t have access to an opera house.

Production photo from The Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere of Tobias Picker’s Emmeline, 1996. This production was only recently revived by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in its 2015 season. Photo by Ken Howard.

The two recent operas that are the best candidates to enter the standard operatic repertoire, John Adam’s Nixon in China and Tobias Picker’s Emmeline, have definitely benefited from non-live mediums. Both made quite a splash upon premiere (30 and 20 years out respectively), both had telecasts, highly successful commercial recordings, and developed cult-like followings. But it was only after second major productions, I would argue precipitated by popular demand, that these works have begun to take a foot hold in the repertoire. After being revived by several major companies a decade ago, Nixon in China received its hit Metropolitan Opera premiere in 2011. Emmeline, which thrilled my young ears here at Santa Fe Opera in its 1996 premiere, just received a stunning revival by Opera Theater St. Louis. I am hoping a similar future awaits this lush and moving score.

The “classical-centric” among us will claim that the opera house is a place for conservation rather than innovation. The prevailing belief being that the mission of modern opera companies and practitioners is to protect the sanctity of the standard repertoire rather than to provide a home for innovation, save, perhaps, in the realm of design.

But this is a modern development. Prior to World War 1, audiences clamored for new works. The latest operas by Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, etc. were all devoured as soon as they could be consumed. This held true in the United States as well, where, because the public so vociferously demanded it be seen on our soil, Wagner’s final work, Parsifal, received its initial US production at The Metropolitan Opera without the blessing of Bayreuth.

Speaking of The Met, in recent years, their productions of Glass’s Satyagraha and Adam’s Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer have played to standing room only audiences. Many have heralded this as a return to the appreciation of new works true for the previous century. Gotham seems to have developed a savvy new generation of opera consumers that have grown up with modern art, performance and music; an audience that is demanding to see important new works created and revived.

This attitude seems to be spreading amongst a younger, more daring audience outside of New York City as well, as evidenced by the recent sold-out world tour of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s epic Einstein on the Beach which scandalized the Metropolitan Opera House at its 1976 premiere. Hopefully this will inform the current opera establishment. If producing organizations fostered the creation and revival of more contemporary American operas that are engaging, challenging, and relevant, they would have the potential to bring in the new audiences, perhaps even the Millennials, they have so actively been wooing.

For me, there is nothing better than to experience something brand new; to be among the first to enter a brand new world. Don’t get me wrong. I think that conservation is very important. In addition to being an advocate for new opera, I am also a fan of the standard repertoire, always delighting in the chance to immerse myself in a fresh take on Rigoletto, Tosca, or the Ring Cycle. However, while I know what Carmen and La Boheme sound like note by note, and love them, I am much more thrilled by the potential of experiencing what might become the next modern masterpiece. As such, I have spent much of much adult life and disposable income chasing premieres and modern works around the nation, and every time it is like going to Disneyland. And I am not alone in this.

Ultimately, I hold that, despite all the hurdles, we as supporters, aficionados, creators, and practitioners of opera must support the creation of new works. It not only provides employment for so many deserving artists, it also makes a statement: This. This is us. This is what we believe right now, in this time and this place. This is what is important, relevant, and pressing. This is what we agree, as collaborators in front of and behind the curtain, needs to be heard right now and saved for the ages.

Playbill for the 1926 world premiere of Puccini’s Turandot.

It is easy to forget that Puccini and Busoni were alive and premiering works that are now a part of the canon less than100 years ago. Strauss, a composer with feet in two centuries, premiered his late canonical works a mere 75 years ago. Even many of the most performed modern operas by composers such as Stravinsky, Britten, Berg and Menotti are well over 50 years old. But these works were not only championed by musicians, they also captured something special: they captured the specific aesthetic and zeitgeist of their time. They encapsulated something unclassifiable about the generation in which they were written, something that demanded to be heard. We then demanded that they be reheard. And heard again. And then heard again.

This is why I applaud the daring of Santa Fe Opera and similarly minded companies such as Opera Theater St. Louis, Fort Worth Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Chicago Opera Theater. They refuse to be “Opera Museums.” Instead, they approach opera as a living, breathing, and ever-evolving art form. They have given second voice to important and overlooked works, established platforms to explore and produce non-American works that are worthy of domestic premieres, and have placed their trust, resources, and money behind living composers who are working to create new operas about the American experience.

I leave you with this: Just remember all operas were new operas at some point. Some were hits at their premiers and have remained part of the canon. Some have been forgotten, only later to be rediscovered as masterpieces. And others, oh so many others, are yet to be rediscovered and given new voice. But you… you are lucky. With the premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain at Santa Fe Opera, you may be among the first to support and experience the next great American opera. If you like it, be vocal. Tell others. Watch the telecast. Buy the recording. And, for goodness sake, demand to hear it again.

#Opera #SantaFe

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