Taking opera for a spin

American operas are bursting with activity and attracting crowds, but is it enough to turn them into tomorrow's classics?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For two nights this fall, some 140,000 people packed into a Boston city park to see a show full of songs and spectacle. No, it wasn't the Rolling Stones on tour: It was a free production of "Carmen," performed in English by the Boston Lyric Opera.

In December, a production of "La Bohème" will open on Broadway. The pet project of innovative movie director Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge"), it will introduce audiences of "The Producers" and "The Lion King" to the opera in its original Italian, using three rotating casts of young, unknown singers. After strong reviews in San Francisco, it's become one of the most anticipated Broadway openings of the season.

Is America about to put its own, contemporary stamp on opera, that centuries-old import from Europe? Maybe.

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While it may be too much to call this burst of activity a trend toward "Americanizing" opera, it's certainly a sign of life, and that's enough to get opera enthusiasts cheering. Attendance at American opera houses has been up during the past decade, though that trend may slip a little this year because of difficult economic times.

Meanwhile, American operas written by living composers are not just winning premières by major opera companies – they are being produced for a second or third time, a hint that they may survive to become part of the repertoire at opera companies.

Two recent operas based on popular American books and movies, "Dead Man Walking" and "Little Women," have been performed or are scheduled to be performed in 16 opera houses around the world.

American opera companies are also bringing in new audiences by blurring the line between musical theater and opera, performing works first seen on Broadway such as "A Little Night Music" and "Sweeney Todd," by Stephen Sondheim, or even Rodgers and Hammerstein shows.

Stretching the medium in less familiar directions are contemporary American composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, both of whom presented new works ("Three Tales" and "Galileo Galilei") in New York last month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Steady stream = survival

Those who are involved in producing opera and in training the next generation of opera singers say that the art form's long-term survival depends on producing a steady stream of new American works.

While Europe continues to reexamine works written in the 18th and 19th centuries, American companies are beginning to develop works with a distinctly American feel.

"There is a better chance that the future direction of the opera will rise on these shores than in Europe, assuming, that is, that it has a future," says Eric Johnson, who teaches opera performance at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. He says he's "always on the prowl for suitable contemporary American operas with a modern sensibility that my young students can relate to."

Only in an environment in which new works are performed time and again can the art form continue to evolve, observers say. And that means giving today's composers a chance to develop.

"Dead Man Walking" was Jake Heggie's first opera, points out Mark Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, an advocacy organization for professional opera companies.

"Verdi's first opera is pretty well forgotten. Mozart's first opera is certainly forgotten," says Mr. Scorca. "These masters became masters of composition at their 10th opera, their 15th opera.

What interests me particularly is that there is enough creative energy so that Jake or Mark Adamo ['Little Women'] or others have a chance to write their fifth, or sixth, or seventh operas. They are so talented, I believe that their later works will be even better."

New operas face special barriers. Not only must opera companies worry about whether audiences will accept an unknown work, in lieu of yet another go at "Carmen" or "Aida," but they often must spend more money on them. New works require new sets and costumes, commissioning fees, and extra rehearsal time, Mr. Scorca says.

"Opera companies want to break out of the box" and produce new works, says Leon Major, artistic director of the Boston Lyric Opera and the Opera Studio at the University of Maryland. Doing new works feeds "their very soul" as an artistic entity. But the financial risks are huge if the production should flop at the box office.

The vast majority of operas staged in the United States are still from the classic European canon. Even a relatively successful American opera, such as Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," has been performed professionally only 18 times since 1992, according to Opera America. That pales in comparison with the 182 productions of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," for instance, during the same time period.

'American spirit comes through'

To minimize the financial risk of new works, Major says, some opera companies and university opera programs "are trying to do small experimental things, which don't require big orchestras or big choruses."

The new American works employ a variety of forms and approaches. Some of the works challenge audiences with unfamiliar sounds. On the other hand, a work such as "Little Women" is "very accessible to an audience," Major says.

Whatever the opera's style, he says, an "American spirit comes through the composers and their works," even though it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what it is. One distinction can be in the choice of raw materials.

Just as Mozart and Verdi drew on stories, musical styles, and themes of their day, today's American operas are doing the same, often incorporating jazz, gospel, blues, or other indigenous musical styles. Both "Dead Man Walking" and 1999's "The Great Gatsby" by John Harbison are examples.

Asking whether today's new American operas will become tomorrow's classics is asking the wrong question, Opera America's Scorca says. "We need to let go some of the concern about whether something is an enduring work." The questions, he says, should be, "Did it move me? Did it engage me? Did it give me a new understanding or new insights that I find valuable?"

The definition of opera is becoming more fluid than ever. Operas may have spoken text; musical theater may be entirely sung. Some musicals make vocal demands on singers that approach those of opera.

An experimental opera like Reich's "Three Tales" makes use of video images and recorded spoken text. But figuring out exactly where opera is heading is not really the issue, says Susan Blumstein of the Manhattan School of Music, which offers professional opera training. "In my mind, it matters that we continue to create. We don't know where we're going, but we do know what we want to express: what we have inside ourselves."

History suggests it may be difficult to judge the future success of today's new American operas. "You know, 'Carmen' was panned at its opening," Boston Lyric's Major says. "It was ripped apart as being vulgar and incomprehensible music ... and for its licentiousness. A hundred years later, it's the most popular opera in the world."

• New American operas on stage in coming months include 'A View from the Bridge,' written in 1999 by William Balcom (and based on the Arthur Miller novel), performed by New York's Metropolitan Opera Dec. 5 to 28 and the Portland (Ore.) Opera March 29 to April 5; 'Dead Man Walking' at the Austin (Texas) Lyric Opera Jan. 10 to 18; and 'Little Women' at the New York City Opera March 23 to April 8. 'La Bohème' on Broadway begins previews in late November and opens Dec. 8.

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