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Sing in the New

August 14, 2007

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.
Staying Power
But 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 Legs
San 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.

Jake Heggie

Photo by Lisa Kohler

André Previn's 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.
Glass Half Full
So the job of a composer is, essentially, to vindicate a personal style through repeated successes in the theater and repeated exposure to listeners. Glass' career makes this point. Although he has always managed to attract crossover fans from the serious side of popular music, his arrival as the most successful American opera composer of his generation was anything but guaranteed by that fact.

His music continues to arouse hostility from certain quarters of the classical music establishment and press. Einstein on the Beach (1976), which really turned opera on its head, was the far-out point. Hans de Roo, director of the Netherlands Opera at the time, approached Glass, the composer says, with the line, "Well young man, that was very interesting. Now how would you like to write a real opera."

But Satyagraha caused problems, as well. The singers resisted learning Sanskrit, the main language of the libretto, and the orchestra members nearly mutinied. Despite its critical success, this was not necessarily an opera headed for the repertory.

Philip Glass

But now, with an artistically successful and audience-satisfying new production, Satyagraha appears ready to come in, while Einstein arouses less interest, probably because it is almost an anti-opera with its non-narrative libretto, arias sung in solfège syllables, nontraditional orchestration, and the hallucinatory combination of Robert Wilson's imagery and lighting with Glass' endless arpeggios in a production running to five hours without intermission.

The more "conventional" works are easier to absorb, perhaps, but it seems likely, based again on the number of productions they are now receiving, that several of Glass' operas are headed for the exalted status of permanent repertory, perhaps including Akhnaten (1984) and the trilogy of Cocteau-inspired operas of the 1990s.

By analogy, part of the fate of Heggie's Dead Man may hinge on the reception of The End of the Affair, his second opera, which premiered in 2004 at Houston Grand Opera and went on to Madison and Seattle. Thomas Adès' brilliant chamber opera Powder Her Face (1995) seems like a much better bet for hanging around, now that his even-more-brilliant The Tempest (2004) has appeared.
In Search of Staying Power
So what are the qualities that make an opera a candidate for repertory status? We want the music to have appeal, certainly, but also dramatic breadth — in other words, the ability to mirror and augment the course of the drama or theatrical action. We want interesting, challenging subject matter, a libretto that suggests theatrical possibilities and, like a good play, is both timely and timeless. At the same time, audiences will generally reject a work that is too abstract and unconnected to anything in operatic tradition. It is a fine line to walk. Heggie took a leap of faith in this category with his first opera, and was rewarded for it.

Finally, we want to be bowled over by opera, or entranced by it. That was the secret of Messiaen's St. François d'Assise when SFO presented it in 2002. The audience and even the performers were amazed at the production's artistic success. The music's strength is its monumentality and unity of vision; the libretto is distilled almost to essences, and absolutely individual in its point of view.

Few operas can succeed by making such a virtue of extremity. In that sense, the work is Wagnerian. Messiaen's opera may not become a repertory staple, but it illustrates the kind of reorientation and resonance necessary in the nonstandard operas that do become valued in history. They make demands. They are not always easy. They turn some people off.

And this leads to the final question: Doesn't the audience have the final say? In a way they do. Even in Europe, with its high government subsidies, general managers can take chances. But they cannot ignore public opinion. A director may try to influence public opinion, but playing to empty houses is a dead end.

On the other hand, simple pandering to perceived public tastes would not have produced any of the operas discussed here. Opera is not an art of lowest common denominators, and audiences do have to be trusted (and expected) to respond to sophisticated ideas and musical structures. And often, initial resistance has to be overcome. That's always been true.
Old, New, Tried, True
If an audience wants the rewards of seeing new, exceptional art, they'll put in some work. Operas like Wozzeck and The Rake's Progress, now indisputably repertory staples, are full of challenges, when you think about it. There will always be a productive tension between new and popular in opera. That's the case whether a company is commissioning a new opera or a new production of a repertory favorite. Popular art (whether Beethoven or the latest country and western singer) is based in the familiar and the known. But if you always err on that side, your art will be stale at birth.

Of course, new work does best if it respects some aspects of tradition. A new production of Fidelio should not completely disregard what Beethoven and his librettists wrote. A new opera's music should have points of contact with an audience, like Glass' simple arpeggios, or the simple strophic song form that opens Messiaen's St. François, or the leitmotives that are used to structure the entire opera, or Adès' blending of diverse musical styles. These are familiar sounds and ideas that listeners can hang on to.

Composers have to reach for the stars with new operas and dare the audience to follow them. That's where the rewards are.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.