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Creative Programming in Hard Times
Opera America Magazine •
The majority of contemporary American opera companies sprang up after the Great Depression — which means they're now confronting the most severe economic downturn in their existence. And the performing arts are doubly vulnerable. Not only is institutional funding at risk: audiences, their very lifeblood, have also had to become more cautious about opening their wallets.
Yet it's worth recalling that opera has actually flourished during periods of economic cataclysm. Counterintuitive as it seems, the Depression years were a pivotal era in the formation of American operatic culture. As John Dizikes observes in his valuable history, Opera in America, "The dazzling surface prosperity of the 1920s concealed ominous operatic decline, while the hard times of the 1930s obscured emerging creativity and growth." Benjamin Britten began establishing new directions for British opera — with lessons that remain relevant today — in the climate of financial uncertainty immediately following the Second World War.
Clearly we're still too early in the cycle to predict what lasting impacts the current meltdown will have. Yet despite many alarming signs — from high-profile productions that have had to be cancelled to outright bankruptcies — companies aren't necessarily retreating into a holding pattern that offers nothing but operatic comfort food. In fact, the costs associated with the warhorses of grand opera tend to make such choices less than fiscally sound in belt-tightening times, no matter how well they have done historically at the box office.
"We recently conducted focus groups as part of an audience study, in which we asked what would be the one thing we might do that would drive people away," remarks Timothy O'Leary, general director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. "And the answer that repeatedly came back surprised me. It wasn't something like if the parking became difficult. It was if we ever became boring or safe."
Repertoire choices that aim beyond the tried and true don't have to be a casualty of the recession. Efforts to be fiscally prudent can go hand in hand with innovative choices and with seasons geared toward stimulating both loyal audiences and attracting newcomers to opera. The companies able to weather the storm are likely to be those which are flexible in trying out different models for different audience segments.
Partnering with Publishers
It also remains to be seen whether the economic pressure will inspire new ways of cooperating throughout the opera industry — for example, between producers and publishers, camps that are not typically perceived as having warm relations. "Music publishers are sometimes seen as terribly mercenary," notes Judith Ilika, who is director of performance promotion at Theodore Presser. "But we're all in it together. We're looking out for our composers and want to help make performances of new music happen, to keep the art alive. As publishers, we can help identify those operas that don't need a chorus and use smaller forces but that can still satisfy an opera audience. If there are no performances, we all lose; and if there are no performances of new music, we also lose. I want the standard rep to be there, but I also want to be challenged."
"One of my key goals is to help the companies we work with find a way to continue adventurous programming without taking some overly risky financial gamble," says Peggy Monastra, director of promotion at G. Schirmer. She points to underexplored possibilities of collaboration with producing partners. "Every publisher has a small handful of works that lie somewhere on the spectrum between being completed and just beginning to be workshopped. There are all sorts of dialogues I'd like to invite from companies."
Monastra refers to several scenarios: from composers who decide to forego major commission fees to finding new life for a quality piece that failed to receive an adequate first production or that needs a little revision. "There's also opportunity — particularly for companies whose mission statement is to showcase new work — to present the North American premiere of an opera from Europe, or maybe the regional premiere of a new production that exists already. Next February, for example, Opera Company of Philadelphia is giving the East Coast premiere of Tan Dun's Tea [with the sets and costumes from the American premiere at The Santa Fe Opera]."
Gaining Through Reduction
Monastra points to operas from the G. Schirmer catalogue that might make sense "for the economic-stimulus era" in that they require fewer forces than those associated with grand opera. She breaks these down into such categories as one-act operas, chamber operas (e.g., Mark Adamo's Little Women), "pocket operas" like John Harbison's Full Moon in March and operas that are available in reduced orchestrations, citing versions of the Barber classic Vanessa and Kirke Mechem's opera Tartuffe (which has received some 350 performances since its San Francisco Opera premiere in 1980).
The time-honored practice of making orchestral reductions of pre-existing scores is an especially notable phenomenon that seems to be gaining new favor: It can simultaneously help companies adhere to tighter budgets and satisfy the hunger for fresh repertory. Depending on union agreements with musicians, of course, reductions don't necessarily mean that a company needs to pay only the dozen players, say, who may be called for in the revamped version. Still, they can obviate the need for hiring extra players and, even more significantly, enable performances in smaller theaters with limited pit size.
At Peermusic — which was founded on the eve of the Depression — the director of its classical division, Todd Vunderink, thinks companies would do well to recall the flowering of music in the 1930s that took on "gritty and realistic" aspects, as in Kurt Weill's collaborations (which do in fact seem to be enjoying a resurgence of interest). "There's also the trend when times are tough to think in terms of a nimble, smaller and more virtuosic ensemble."
Norman Ryan, who is vice president for composers and repertoire at Schott Music, also serves on the board of American Opera Projects, an umbrella group that fosters the creation of new opera. There is a serious interest, he notes, in "productions that are easily transportable and don't require huge forces. We often get inquiries about reductions of our standard-rep works that have had play in the past but that are not possible because of budgets or because of an alternative venue that is too small. So I'll ask general directors if they know that there is a reduction now available, for example, of Tobias Picker's opera Thérèse Raquin." And for companies interested in new works, Ryan mentions that conversations with the composer about the size of the ensemble involved "are on the table much earlier than usual, with companies asking us to stay within a certain framework."
From the composer's point of view, reduced orchestrations address an obvious need. "It's strictly for practical reasons. Puccini did this for all of his operas, too," remarks Tobias Picker, who has been working his way through reduced versions of his entire body of operas. New York's Dicapo Opera Theatre (where Picker serves as artistic advisor) staged the new chamber version of Thérèse Raquin in 2007.
"Thérèse is suited for small opera houses anyway — it's a very claustrophobic piece about sex," Picker says. "I prefer to see my operas on a human scale. The problem in America is that we have enormous opera houses that would be unthinkably big in
About the Author: Thomas May writes frequently for Opera America and other music publications.