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Doors slamming shut? – where to, for American opera

Gotterdammerung

LA Opera 2009-10 Season. 'Gotterdammerung'. Alberich (Richard Paul Fink), Eric Halfvarson (Hagen). Photo by: Monika Rittershaus

‘Crisis’. That’s the word you most often hear when someone in the US describes the state of opera in America these days. ‘Our donors are going gray’; ‘We’re one donor from disaster!’ And then they recount the companies that have collapsed in the recent past – Orlando, Baltimore, Opera Pacific, Connecticut, Berkshire – and you start to share their feeling of rising panic. Could the same thing happen in our part of the world? Perhaps not in this way, considering the extent of government support, but…

America’s opera companies are certainly struggling with the sorts of challenges affecting operas and symphony orchestras around the Western world – declining patronage, increasing costs, questions over a static repertoire… When I arrived in New York, the papers carried ‘fat lady’s singing’ stories about New York City Opera. And US companies are still reeling from the Global Financial Crisis, which packed a bigger punch here than in Australia.

‘It’s affected all aspects of our business,’ I was told by Rupert Hemmings, Director of Production at Los Angeles Opera. Hemmings, the son of Peter Hemmings (who as General Manager of The Australian Opera commissioned Meale and Malouf’s Voss) admits that, given LA Opera’s proximity to Hollywood, production value is possibly not an area they can skimp on. But the GFC is a ‘very strong presence’ and it has to be observed. We have ‘scaled back more in quantity of what we’re doing’ (a common solution at many companies: let’s do four operas, instead of five).

But for an Australian still trying to get the lie of the land, the American opera scene still looks pretty inviting. I look enviously at the ads for new productions in the current issue of Opera America – John Musto and Mark Campbell’s The Inspector, the forthcoming premiere of Nico Muhly and Stephen Karam’s Dark Sisters… ‘Why did you come here now?’ a Washington lawyer asked on the train from Chicago. He was shaking his head over the Financial Crisis. But I see hopeful signs.

We already know how successful opera in cinema has been for The Met. That may not denote a solution for all other companies (of which, I’ve got say, there are a staggeringly large number in the US). But clearly American companies are working hard to come to terms with technological opportunities. The keynote speech at the recent Opera America conference in Boston was given by Dr Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab, producer of such programs and platforms as Amazon’s Kindle, Guitar Hero and LEGO Mindstorms.

Il Postino

LA Opera 2010-11 Season. 'Il Postino'. Charles Castronovo (Mario Ruoppolo), Amanda Squitieri (Beatrice). Photo by: Robert Millard

Under MIT’s auspices, there are even now technological operas like Tod Machover’s Death and the Power: the Robots’ Opera. ‘A wealthy inventor toys with immortality,’ according to The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Swed, ‘by downloading himself into his household environment, sofa included.’

Do technological solutions marry with the enduring values of opera? Swed, in that article, questioned visual solutions for an aural art-form (if that is not putting it too crudely.) When I spoke to LA composer, Paul Reale, he seemed to sound a warning about the attractions of technology: ‘The substance has to be of primary concern.’ Reale, who leans more now toward chamber music, spoke of the need for opera ‘to embed itself in the culture the way Don Giovanni does, because Mozart’s dealing with the way people feel about each other.’ But quite a few of the other possible (‘analogue’) solutions for opera’s predicament look positive.

One of these is personal entrepreneurism. There is a trend on the part of US opera performers to get out there and get doing, creating opportunities for themselves, rather than waiting for auditions.

What is arising now is the kind of musician who can conceive of a project (say, ‘the world of my Appalachian forebears’), source the funding and win an appreciative and profitable response from the community for whom the work was written. Entrepreneurism is even on the syllabus at schools such as Eastman, New England Conservatory, Duquesne University and the Manhattan School of Music. This option is not limited to singers, of course. But singers and opera performers are well-placed to come up with a show, something that makes maximum use of text and stagecraft.

Success is measured now not so much by landing the role of Mimì, but by building a career in this manner. ‘I kind of made myself the opera singer of Bed-Stuy [Bedford-Stuyvesant],’ says soprano Malesha Jessie in a Brooklyn Independent Television interview which you can view on YouTube. She sings in bars, the street, wherever anyone will stop and listen it seems. “Who turned up tonight prepared to sing?” was a question asked by soprano Lauren Flanagan at an Opera America ‘in conversation’ evening I attended, as she made the point that her career was built on making the most of any opportunity to perform.

There is a sense now that opera can be made anywhere and everywhere. Houston Grand Opera’s ‘Song of Houston’ creates musical-dramatic works that ‘tell the stories of Houstonians in collaborative community and educational projects’. All of this is creating work that is intended to speak to and with America.

Nora, In the Great Outdoors

AOP. 'Nora, In the Great Outdoors'. Composer: Daniel Felsenfeld. Librettist: Will Eno

According to the Opera America website, the most frequently-produced operas in the 2009-2010 US season were: Figaro, La bohème, Carmen, Tosca, traviata, Madam Butterfly, The Magic Flute, Hansel and Gretel, The Elixir of Love and Don Giovanni. We may not wish to supplant these works, but does this mean they cannot be supplemented?

One positive thing you’ll note about the contemporary American opera scene is the number of new commissions. A question mark may be placed over how many of these may ‘embed themselves in the culture’, to borrow Reale’s phrase. But even that aspect is being worked on.

‘We’ve sometimes called ourselves The Workshopping Opera Company,’ says Charles Jarden, General Director of American Opera Projects, ‘because even though there are other companies that commission new work, ours is a systematic development process. [The works we accept are] evaluated, results are measured, the product is looked at before it moves to the next step.’ But the key feature here is probably the degree of audience feedback. Jarden says AOP is modelled on practices in theatre and film. So ‘readings, early readings in front of an audience…The film industry actually started this way too, with focus groups – “Did the ending work for you?” “Should the baby be thrown out the window at the end?” And we kind of impose that on creators. They know when they come to us that if the feedback is that this is not landing, we may stop the project.’

American Opera Projects currently has 15 projects listed on their website, all in varying stages of development (from libretto readings to workshopped scenes…); several of the works they have developed have now successfully been staged by name-companies – Tarik O’Regan’s Heart of Darkness at Covent Garden, Stephen Schwartz’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon (Santa Barbara Opera and New York City Opera), and Jorge Martin’s Before Night Falls with Fort Worth ‘That’s been the change in the last five years, that companies are now coming to us and saying, “You guys have the expertise, you have the resources, you also have the New York caché of how to do it in a milieu that is well-suited to it, and you have the theatre industry people here.” Stephen Schwartz [composer of Broadway musicals Wicked, Godspell and Pippin] came to us…’

But AOP doesn’t just workshop specific submissions. Composers and the Voice could be considered an investment in opera composers. At the end of a year-long process of familiarisation (the composers with the capabilities of voices; the participating singers with the creators’ work and methods), composers and librettists produce 3-5 minute solo works (accompanied by piano) for each of the basic vocal categories: coloratura soprano, lyric soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone and bass. AOP’s monodrama series champions a neglected form. We heard two works in different stages of development, The Wanton Sublime by Tarik O’Regan and Anna Rabinowitz and Daniel Felsenfeld and Will Eno’s Nora in the Great Outdoors, a dramatisation of what happens to Ibsen’s Nora after she has left Torvald’s Doll’s House. I was struck by composer Felsenfeld’s interest in what happens next, after the resolution of the action. To him, this moment of reflection is the operatic moment, the moment demanding a bursting into song. It struck me as a very perceptive comment from someone investigating opera at its most fundamental level.

It isn’t just about creating big operas, clearly. Just as Houston Grand Opera draws strength from its community with the ‘Song of Houston’ project, AOP draws strength from Brooklyn – encouraging locals to write songs and performance pieces about their community (I Hear American Sing), or aiming to commission settings of all Brooklyn-ite Walt Whitman’s poetry.

Jarden’s vision of opera companies is once more allied to this idea that opera can develop anywhere and everywhere, a view that I have heard made a number of times now: ‘Why not use opera companies more like the old-fashioned tailor? We are the experts. If you want a piece of music for your high school graduation ceremony, come to us. We’ll find a composer and we’ll create it. It won’t be off the rack. If you want a monument in your town, come to an opera company. They’ll create a music event around that for your ceremony. The company now has community worth….’

The situation in America vis-a-vis opera looks dangerous. There is talk of big companies on the verge of collapse. But I wonder if the situation is more one of dissolution, dispersal and reinvention – there is more happening at the grass-roots level, and there is sometimes tactical retreat to a lower tier. The commissioning of Muhly’s Dark Sisters has been hailed by Anne Midgette of The Washington Post as a ‘…validation for the once-conservative Opera Company of Philadelphia [a co-producer] which has over the years launched a series presenting offbeat works in a smaller theatre…’ Alex Ross in The New Yorker (May 9, 2011) hopes that New York City Opera will ‘adopt a shaggy, rebellious attitude’.

A country with so much drama and so rich in sound (as I write I hear a baseball game being cheered in Spanish) will always, surely, have some sort of native opera. This is what strikes an Australian overwhelmed by the sheer size of the response to a perception of crisis. Perhaps doors will slam shut, but such is the energy here that it’s possible to be hopeful (in Daniel Felsenfeld’s words) about what happens next.

Gordon Kalton Williams © 2011