Talented composers bring opera to masses

A centuries-old art form reaches out to new audiences

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Although some high-profile American composers, such as Philip Glass and John Adams, continue to dwell in the arid precincts of the avant-garde, other creators of new operas offer irresistible combinations of accessible music and gripping story lines that make audiences want to experience music theater.

Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking," the dramatic musicalized version of Sister Helen Préjean's account of capital punishment, continues its triumphal progress around America's opera houses. After it leaves Opera Pacific in Costa Mesa, Calif., tomorrow, it travels to the Cincinnati Opera (July 11-19) and then to the New York City Opera (Sept. 13-Oct. 2).

Heggie finds that his opera, like most new works, attracts "an entirely new audience, because new operas are on subjects that are more contemporary, and people can relate to them more; they are coming in without the same experiences of the diehard operagoer.

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"Opera companies want to commission new works, because they bring in additional audiences, and they are a great way to garner lots of attention."

Indeed, Heggie is already working on a new commission to premié¨re in 2004 at the Houston Grand Opera, an operatic version of Graham Greene's novel "The End of the Affair."

One reason for opera's accessibility today is surtitles (the words in English projected above or beside the stage). They are loathed by purists, who say they distract from onstage action. However, Heggie disagrees with these objections.

"Even though I try to write so that the English is understandable, surtitles put the audience's mind at ease, so they can focus on what's going on."

Thea Musgrave, another veteran composer of much-praised new operas, agrees with Heggie. She wrote the vastly popular 1970s work "Mary, Queen of Scots."

In May, Boston Musica Viva will premié¨re Ms. Musgrave's "The Mocking Bird," based on an Ambrose Bierce story. Musgrave is also working on an opera commissioned by the New Orleans Opera to commemorate the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, to premié¨re in 2003.

"There is no question that supertitles have been an enormous help with any new work [even familiar ones], and even when they are sung in English," Musgrave says.

That's because today's audiences are "not any more monolithic than yesterday's." Some audiences want trusted favorites, but others are eager for more adventurous fare.

"Opera is the most expensive art form to produce," Musgrave says, and when companies do decide to mount a new work, "audiences can be trusted" to understand its musical and dramatic impact at a first hearing. However, "someone has to have enough conviction in new works to persevere and remount them."

Compelling story lines are essential. Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" tells of a death-row inmate who finds redemption in a friendship with a visiting nun. "I just try to find something that has resonance today," he says.

Musgrave adds that to make the subject matter operatic, "each scene must have a clear dramatic purpose, well-defined characters, and also be suitable for musical setting, at times dramatic, and at others lyrical."

Both composers are generous with advice to those cast in their operas. "Singers are usually wonderfully cooperative, once they know that you know something about the voice and about how to set words effectively," Musgrave says.

"Although the same singers may sing Mozart, Donizetti, Puccini, Verdi, or Britten, they obviously have to understand the composer's individual style to maximize their delivery."

Other securely idiomatic composers who will be having important premié¨res are William Bolcom and Stephen Paulus.

Mr. Bolcom's acclaimed opera "A View from the Bridge," which premié¨red at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1999, will be performed at New York's Metropolitan Opera in December, followed by stagings at Portland (Ore.) Opera and Opera Pacific in Orange County, Calif. He continues to work on "A Wedding," based on Robert Altman's movie. It will premié¨re at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2004.

The prolific Mr. Paulus, best known for his steamy setting of "The Postman Always Rings Twice," has a new work, "Heloise and Abelard," that will premié¨re at the Juilliard Opera Center in New York (April 24-29).

Bolcom says many opera singers show some interest in performing new works in principle, then bow out. But, he adds, "No one I have worked with in opera, once committed, wasn't excited about the adventure."

Younger artists benefit from a "definite slant in training and choice of repertoire leading to an amalgam of European opera and American musical theater that will bring about our own kind of opera," he says.

Bolcom's amalgam is already winning bravos from experts like James Jorden, publisher of the opera website www.parterre.com, who praises the "very beautiful and grateful vocal writing" in Bolcom's "A View From the Bridge."

Opera experienced significant growth in the 1990s, as the Three Tenors helped bring it to the masses. Combine this with splendidly talented composers with a deep understanding of the opera idiom Â- such as Bolcom, Heggie, and Musgrave Â- and it augurs a bright future for the art form.

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