You have to be a bit of a high-stakes gambler to be an opera composer. You spend a long time, probably several years at least, carefully putting together a project, writing and revising it, and seeing it through to performance (assuming it's been accepted for production). And then, even if the first audiences applaud it — not necessarily a given — its future is uncertain.And the same thing is true for an opera company. Commission a work, and win the prestige of having performed it. But later see it disappear into the ether, along with money, sets, and costumes. And yet, commissions and new operas continue to pour forth, defying the conventional wisdom. August 2007 marks the local unveilings of several new operas: Thomas Pasatieri's Hotel Casablanca by the Merola Opera Program (see review); Ned Rorem's Our Town at Festival Opera in Walnut Creek (see review); a portion of Kirke Mechem's Pride and Prejudice, previewed by the San Francisco Choral Society (see review); and Our American Cousin, a semi-staging at UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall of a new opera by composer Eric Sawyer, with lyrics by John Shoptaw, opening Aug. 23. Not to mention last June's premiere of Paul Dresher's The Tyrant at the Berkeley Edge Festival (see review), or the premiere behemoth on the horizon — Philip Glass' Appomattox at San Francisco Opera (opening Oct. 5). SFO will perform one of David Gockley's last Houston Opera commissions, Rachel Portman's The Little Prince, in June 2008.A Streetcar Named Desire (1997) will be seen in five productions and 20 performances worldwide over the same time span. That's still not a bad record for a contemporary opera, about equal to Glass' Satyagraha (1981), which is having major revivals at London's Royal Opera and New York's Met. And John Adams' Dr. Atomic has just had its European premiere in Amsterdam, and will be coming to Chicago this season. Conrad Susa's The Dangerous Liaisons (1994) is surviving tenuously in a production by New York's adventurous Dicapo Opera Theatre. It would be a mistake to assume from this that Heggie's opera is destined for the greatest long-term success. Styles and tastes change and the future is unpredictable. More crucially, though, modern operas tend to go through a period of neglect in their teenage years as companies move on to the next new thing. When will Dead Man make it back to its point of origin? Not for a while, I suspect. It will go through the winnowing process first. If it survives that — and the process has as much to do with what artistic directors and theater managers think as with public popularity — then it will have earned its place. In the meantime, a composer can help his creation by taking a lesson from Verdi and his contemporaries and writing another opera — in Heggie's case, The End of the Affair. For two and a half centuries, Italian operas were the only European repertory operas. If you wanted to see French opera, you mostly had to go to Paris and its environs. The style was a given over long periods, with aspects of bel canto altering only slowly. It was not unusual for a composer, badly paid and with no copyright protections, to write an opera in two weeks (Mozart, La clemenza di Tito), or four (Rossini, La Cenerentola), or six (Verdi, La traviata). When one was finished he'd start the next. Most Italian opera composers had stretches in which they wrote two operas a year. The composers who wrote the staples of today's repertory became famous by imprinting their distinctive voices in the ears of their audiences through repetition. And of course, new repertory used to replace older repertory, until the advent of movies and the modernist artistic movements ate into opera's popularity. Fully 75 percent of today's repertory was written between 1830 and 1910. The chief difference between then and now is that there is no overarching style to new pieces. The concept itself has been exploded. Opera companies take works from formerly distinct repertories like light opera and Broadway. This is why The Merry Widow will receive 437 performances, and Sondheim's Sweeney Todd 53 performances, in the world's opera houses in the 2006-2008 time frame.
Staying PowerBut premieres alone do not make a golden age. What happens to an opera after the glow of publicity and novelty fade? How many of the works currently being commissioned around the globe will make it past their premieres to gain a permanent berth in an opera company's repertory? A winnowing of contenders obviously takes place and multiple factors are involved, ranging from popularity with the public all the way to the individual tastes of general managers or determined advocacy by an influential musician. Surprisingly, there is clear evidence that the operatic repertory is expanding, as major opera companies seek to appeal to a wide audience with a variety of tastes. Premieres will always be partly about prestige, but they are also part of a diversity strategy that is particularly obvious in companies that give a large number of performances. Besides having a lot of seats to fill, these companies (if they're smart) are concerned with raising their profile in the communities they serve. A particular opera may not play to capacity, but ticket sales alone, we are constantly reminded, do not pay for an opera season. In a world that carefully balances prestige and dollars, a company has to have new productions that get talked about and attract the attention of ticket buyers who aren't opera fans. Younger audiences are as likely to attend a Glass opera as a Rigoletto, as marketing surveys repeatedly confirm. If you still doubt this, take a look at some the names the Met's canny new general manager, Peter Gelb, has invited to write for the Met's new commissioning project: Wynton Marsalis, jazz composer and trumpeter; Jeanine Tesori, composer of the musical Caroline, or Change and other Broadway works; and popular singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, whose operatic inclinations make him an interesting choice. Both Marsalis and Wainwright have followings among the thirtysomethings that opera companies strive to attract. But commissioning operas is expensive and risky, so companies are often on the lookout for productions of relatively new operas that already have raised interest, received publicity, and proven themselves on a stage or two. So if you're a composer who is lucky enough to get a major premiere, and your opera is carefully staged with good singers, there is at least a possibility that the work will travel.
Walking Has LegsSan Francisco Opera has been on a particularly lucky streak in this regard, as a trip to the industry Web site Operabase will easily confirm. One of Operabase's services is to collect worldwide performance data. Of four recent SFO premieres, three are doing quite well. Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking (2000) is the clear winner in these sweepstakes. Between Jan. 1, 2006, and the fall of 2008 it will have racked up 41 performances, more than Britten's Peter Grimes, already a repertory staple, or Puccini's La rondine, and certainly far ahead of any of its contemporary competitors. Dresden's Staatsoper is featuring Dead Man Walking in two consecutive seasons, and it is being performed as far afield as Dublin, Malmö (Sweden), Sydney, and Vienna.
Photo by Lisa KohlerAndré Previn's