A recent study published in Biological Reviews argues that the earth’s sixth mass extinction event is under way, causing a flurry of national interest and grim media headlines warning of drastic decreases in global biodiversity.
Would the death of opera in its current form, reducing the diversity of America’s artistic landscape garner such attention? Probably not — this medium matters a great deal to a relatively small portion of the population. But for years now, opera has been in a sort of cocoon-like transition period as it explores new works and ways to move beyond its exclusionary history. Companies large and small around the country are emphasizing newer works and new ways of performing old works. COVID-19, that natural catalyst that pushed society to do some serious introspection, has sped this process along.
The evidence: Many companies were forced to experiment with digital content, smaller-scale productions, and new ways of rehearsing and performing. As the pandemic abates — omicron notwithstanding — much of this experimentation will likely be cast aside in favor of the “normal” way of doing business. But there are some composers, performers, and directors who, thanks to their creativity, have been hired on as artistic directors during the uncertainty of the pandemic to ensure that some of the changes continue on.
Take Shawna Lucey, New York-based theater and opera director appointed in December as Opera San José's new general director. She's been described as “experimental,” but quibbled a bit with the term in an interview: “I don't think of myself as particularly experimental,” she said. “I think it's a complicated word, it's loaded. If you mean experimental as in trying to make a performance deeply engaging and accessible, then yeah I'm very experimental.”
Other “experimental” directors who are jumping into mainstream roles include Yuval Sharon, founder of The Industry in Los Angeles and artistic director of Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre and the much-decorated James Darrah, appointed artistic director and chief creative officer of Long Beach Opera. These three have mounted productions of old and new works alike in train stations and parking garages, and as streaming series and much more.
Safe to say, there’s been some experimentation.
“Somewhere along the line, our approach to classic works became really ossified, “Sharon said. “Operas used to be cut, rearranged, pulled from other operas. There used to be a lot more fluidity in some of these works.” Fluidity indeed — Sharon has taken one of the opera world’s best-loved works and literally turned it on his head. In April, Michigan Opera Theatre presents his La bohème, where the opera unfolds in reverse order. Yup. A backwards Bohème. “The elevator pitch can make it sound very gimmicky, but the process doesn’t stop with the headline, “Sharon said. “It’s not an otherwise conventional production of Bohème but a thorough investigation of the concept.”
He added that COVID-19 made it harder for directors and companies to make assumptions about the “right” way to do things, and that that’s led to greater openness in the field for trying more radical techniques. The Industry, his company in Los Angeles, is based on this idea of investigating established processes.
Smaller companies have long been open to experimentation, but the ideas are moving into the mainstream at major companies, signaling a fundamental shift in attitude. “At most regional companies, we aren’t allowed to make a mistake,” Lucey said. “The margin is so thin I can’t, and that fear of making a mistake means everything bland and inoffensive and boring.”
But in the case of both warhorses and new works, in attempting to make the material resonate with audiences, especially new audiences, some creativity will be necessary. And sometimes even a slight directing change can trigger an enormous emotional response. Lucey described directing a production of The Marriage of Figaro where she asked the singer playing the countess to hand her wedding ring back to the count to signal her readiness to move on with her life. “The cast was excited and mind-blown to do it this way, and audiences loved it,” she recalled. “There’s fear, if we do something different like that, audiences will revolt. That has not been my experience.”
James Darrah’s vision for opera’s future exists on a whole other level. “There’s a way in which I’m so eager for the nonprofit arts side of things to wake up and realize that the next generation has phones in their pockets,” he said. Darrah has directed a number of filmed operas since prior to the pandemic and insists that there’s a stark difference between archival recordings or streaming traditional productions and actually designing an opera to be experienced on-screen. “Rather than doing what happened in the 20th century, bringing in film directors and making them record grand opera, why don’t we have opera take on some of the DNA of TV and film,” he said. “That’s where I’m trying to go.”
This mission has taken him to unique spaces, working with television actors and screenwriters in writers’ rooms on episodic, operatic content, including the 2021 release of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs with Opera Philadelphia, and a new film of Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine.
“Opera, because it’s so old, has a lot of tradition embedded in it, something I call the morass of tradition,” Darrah said. “We [can] let opera break apart and play by other rules and involve other mediums’ rules.” He’s advocating for both older works to be reimagined as streaming opportunities as well as newer works created specifically for this medium, as TV and film are the cultural “zeitgeist” in modern times, not opera. There are success stories aplenty. As the creative director of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s digital content in 2021, Darrah oversaw projects that racked up more than 2.5 million views over the course of the year.
The academy is taking notice as well. The Soldier Songs project that Darrah worked on is nominated for best opera recording at the 2022 Grammy Awards. “You’re never going to be able to simulate the experience of going into an opera house and being dazzled and wowed, “Darrah said. “I never want that to go away. But this is a great way to save opera, to be totally frank.” It’s a bold claim.
What’s Lucey’s take on what could save opera from extinction? “Right now, everything is about how the soprano dies at the end,” she said, laughing. “My personal mission in trying to help steward this art form into its next iteration. If I can leave a legacy, it’s to create more comedies. More new American comedies.” She acknowledged that the field is currently grappling with its own legacy and self-image, much like the culture at large, and that asking people to laugh at themselves is a “tough ask.” “Doing comedy is about 3,000 percent harder, like threading a needle,” she said. “And that’s why it’s done less.”
Sharon’s take is less focused on a single medium or genre and about upending conceptions of how opera is created. “All I can do is react authentically to these works and progress whether these things are old or new,” he said. “The reception is out of my hands. At this point, I have my way of working and that’s not going to change based on how people respond.” This may sound abrasive, but his commitment to investigating opera’s processes has led to international success and renown.
Sharon’s revolutionary production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute premiered in Berlin in 2019 to catcalls and boos, leading one reviewer to opine: “There are natural catastrophes, such as floods and earthquakes. And then there are manmade catastrophes, such as Yuval Sharon’s new production of Die Zauberflöte.” (Shirley Apthorp writing for Financial Times gets credit for that zinger.) But in the end, that production has gone on to become quite popular around the world, thanks to its freshness.
Like any live performance, one that inspires an emotional response, even a negative one, is preferable to another sleepy Magic Flute. The field seems to agree, if the influx of more daring directing talent is any indication.
“A lot of people think ‘experimental’ means Bohème on the moon with people swimming through putty,” Lucey said. “But the experiment is when we have a classic title like Marriage of Figaro or Magic Flute ... we are an American audience full of diverse and interesting citizens. Up until now, we’ve maybe not been a part of the opera experience, because [of the way] it was transmitted, because it’s not for them or they didn’t see themselves there. The question now is, how do we make Marriage of Figaro matter to these diverse communities, as I believe that the music of Mozart is for everyone. It’s an exciting time for opera, new composers, and new works, and specifically those talking about the American experience. Maybe more directly compelling, because it’s more directly related to where we are now.”