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Refreshing the Repertory
Patrick J. Smith
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Opera America Magazine4/1/2009

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The English opera director Nicholas Hytner said it best: “The problem for opera is that its conventions haven’t been refreshed by a constantly evolving repertory.” This situation, endemic and almost rusted into opera, had existed from the beginning of the 20th century, but had become acute in the United States by the end of the 1970s. It was a product of several factors, not least the immense pull of the standard repertory and its box-office stars, but it could also have been the result of what could be termed “The Wagner Curse” — that is, the controlling idea that an opera, once commissioned or set on a course for performance, would be created by composer and librettist and presented with only limited adjustments during the rehearsal period to the public. The prime example of this kind of creative work, other than that of Wagner himself, was the image of the composer Olivier Messaien arriving at the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris, entering the office of then-General Director Rolf Liebermann and plunking down 20 pounds of the full score of Saint Francois d’Assise. It had been commissioned; it was delivered. End of story.

The sad tale of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra is analogous, for, after the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House with that work, it took many years for the composer to decide to rethink the opera so that it could be reassessed, in critic Peter G. Davis’s words, as “a noble effort full of many arresting moments” — certainly not the gist of the many opening night opinions.

By the end of the 1970s in the United States, however, the truth of Hytner’s statement had been proven beyond doubt. There were few if any new American operas being written, and almost no American operas being performed by leading — or other — American opera companies. The art form itself, as regards new work, was moribund. Impresarios led by Michigan Opera Theatre’s David DiChiera became alarmed, and he and others generated a wave of funding, underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation and other groups, for the commissioning of new work from the field.

By 1986, a series of operas began to be written and performed, and OPERA America’s Opera Fund expanded and continued the program in the next decades. The result has been dramatic. In the years since 1986, over 250 works of all kinds had received funding from OPERA America, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The works that have been created and put on stage have ranged from grand operas with double choruses to chamber operas, as well as music-theater works. The list of American composers, young and old, who have been attracted to writing opera continues to grow, and unlike Messaien many of these composers have written and had produced more than one opera. Every major United States opera company has presented new work, as well as many smaller companies (in addition to music conservatories and schools around the United States). Recently, San Francisco Opera announced three new commissions for future years.

There are several points to be made about this astonishing growth. One — not so obvious — is that for opera to be viable as a contemporary artistic discipline there has to be a great number of new works premiered. In part this is because a very low percentage of new work can ever make it into even the fringes of the repertory, and also in part it is because only with constant exposure to new, rather than tried-and-true traditional, opera will audiences learn to accept new work not as something to be endured but as a formative part of the program of their company, and — what do you know! — an enjoyable experience.

What is often too little recognized is that, even in that heyday of rich operatic activity in Italy in the 19th century, nine out of 10 operas premiered disappeared in short order. Between the death of Donizetti in 1848 and the advent of Puccini a nd the verismo composers in the 1890s, if you take away Verdi almost nothing but La Gioconda remains.

Such a lively market for new opera meant that composers had the opportunity to hone their craft. Few composers mastered the unwieldy art form on their first — or even second — attempt. Puccini’s Le Villi and Edgar may be all but unheard today, but these early efforts, in addition to providing diversion for opera-hungry audiences, allowed the composer to refine his approach to writing for the lyric stage. (The same could be said for Verdi’s Oberto, or Mozart’s La finta semplice.) At the same time, producers and publishers practiced the essential collaborative skills needed to bring a work to the stage.

Just as it is vital to continue to provide the suppliers of opera with opportunities to rehearse their roles, it is also vital to wean today’s opera audience from the idea of a boom (smash hit) or bust (fiasco) mentality based on a work’s perceived “staying power.” Many new operas were popular in their time, and afforded their audiences a good deal of pleasure, without lasting forever, and the same is true of other popular genres, such as the Broadway musical. An opera that has this kind of reception can be deemed a success no matter what its long-term history.

This definition raises another point. As more and more American operas were produced by American opera companies, they typically disappeared after the publicity-generating “world premiere,” which attracted audiences, critics, and newspaper, television and magazine commentary. Therefore, as new works initiatives developed over the years, significant efforts were made to include funding for second and third productions of these works. Composers were likewise encouraged to rescore their operas for smaller forces, so that they could be performed in local venues not the size of major opera houses.

The current opera scene in the United States, therefore, displays a variety of ways of thinking about new and contemporary work, which not only reflect how opera companies view their own continuing existences but also how they are attempting to bring their audiences into fruitful contact with new opera. Depending on the company itself, the answers sought are different in orientation and in result, and thus point up the ways in which a company can serve new and contemporary work without waiting for the 20-pound score to hit the desk of the general director. Let us consider several of these differing approaches.

The Minnesota Opera has one of the most far-ranging plans, which centers on mainstage activity. Titled “Minnesota OperaWorks,” it is budgeted at 5.5 million dollars, covers seven years of performances, and consists of a series of works, presented one a season, including not only commissions but important revivals. In this way the repertory is both renewed and refreshed.

Minnesota General Director Kevin Smith says: “The success of our commission of Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie to write The Grapes of Wrath led us to thinking of how we could build on that success by expanding our mission as an opera company — an opera company that has had a long history of doing new work.”

He and his associates felt that the company had a strong enough infrastructure to be able to handle a multi-year effort, which would in turn generate a vitality for the rest of the annual repertory, and even lead to digital and electronic recordings, which would take the events far beyond the opera house. The Mellon Foundation became a major donor to the project, which begins this season with the American premiere of Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton’s version of The Adventures of Pinocchio (s
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About the Author: Patrick J. Smith is retired. He was director of the Opera/Musical Theater Program at the National Endowment for the Arts (1985-1989) and editor of Opera News (1989-2000). He is the author of a history of the opera libretto, The Tenth Muse.
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