Opera reaches for new scale
Old art form is flourishing in US as new opera companies open and works are premiered.
Teenagers in motley dress ranging from elegant party frocks to droopy jeans mill around the front entrance to the opera house in downtown San Francisco, awaiting the final dress rehearsal of the company's "Elixir of Love."Skip to next paragraph
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It's High School Night at the opera, a charmingly civil effort to bring the city's youth to its deepest cultural fountain, in the hope they will drink and enjoy. In fitting, grand opera tradition, this tableau plays out against a larger scrim of bad news in the opera world: Opera Pacific just ceased operation, Michigan Opera Theatre canceled the final show of its season, and New York City Opera just lost its cutting-edge new Belgian artistic director for lack of funds. Companies from New York to San Francisco are embracing everything from cheaper costume fabrics to fewer lights to cut costs.
But, say most opera watchers, there has rarely been a time when this most famously expensive art form didn't dance with financial disaster. The current woes mask a much larger and more meaningful story about the changing place of this 409-year-old European art form in American life, says Dana Gioia, departing chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). "Opera has come of age in the United States," says Mr. Gioia.
In recognition, the NEA two weeks ago awarded the first new federal arts medals in 26 years, the NEA Opera Honors. This past week, the Los Angeles Opera announced Ring Festival L.A., its first-ever 10-week arts festival anchored by a six-day production of Richard Wagner's four-opera "Ring" cycle slated for 2010. This citywide cultural collaboration showcases the world-class work of the L.A. Opera under superstar tenor, Placido Domingo, says expert Leslie Dunton-Downer, author of the reference book, "Opera."
By a wide array of measures, this "most civic of art forms," as Gioia calls it – for centuries an opera house has been the measure of a city's aspirations – is in full domestic flower. Since 1965, the number of opera companies has nearly tripled from 46 to 129 full-time groups and that many again in part-time and festival-based companies.
Beyond that – and perhaps more important – since 1990, American opera companies have premiered more than 200 new works by modern composers. Nearly every opera company in the country has a new work somewhere in its schedule, says Anthony Freud, general director of Houston Grand Opera and chairman of Opera America, the New York-based trade association. A generation ago, this was not true, but companies realize they must find ways to keep the art form alive "or risk becoming completely irrelevant," says Mr. Freud.
American composers such as Pulitzer-prize winner John Adams ("Nixon in China," "Death of Klinghoffer") have led the search for a more meaningful art form. "The stories are from our own time and they involve what I call mythic themes of American life," says Mr. Adams, who just released his memoir "Hallelujah Junction."
Berkeley, Calif. - Often called America's greatest living composer, John Adams says he wrote his memoir, "Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life," for the next generation of musicians, the 20-year-olds struggling with doubt about the viability of a life in art. The Berkeley-based musician wants them to know it is possible to survive the drubbings of a pioneer relatively intact. "We ignore the good reviews and fret about the bad ones," he laughs.
But he understands that he is trying to move an art form forward, one that often finds itself mired in the past. "There are many who just want to experience the old chestnuts and don't want to see opera as a living art form," he says. At the same time, he say she has great optimism about the future.
"This is a potentially transformational generation," he says, pointing to the profound changes that have taken place during the arc of his career."Back when I was just starting out, if I wanted to listen to music from Bali or Ghana or Turkey, I would have had to search out anthropological recordings or go to the Library of Congress." Now, he says, the group of emerging young musicians can tap into musical influences from anywhere in the world at the click of a Google search.
He expects a stylistic revolution to arise from this access because, as he points out, the defining contribution of 20th-century composers such as Stravinsky, Copland, and Bartók was their ability to expand the musical palette beyond the established canon. While a wide range of influences is valuable, Adams says, he is most moved by "sincerity."
He shares the concerns of many about the lack of musical education in US elementary and secondary schools, as well as the short attention spans that can derail both the ability to absorb musical art or deter the creation of meaningful work.
He points to his own recent encounter with a team creating musical clips for YouTube. After he "sketched" a piece for them, they sat down for what he called his "first product evaluation." He says they were not happy with what he'd written.
"Iasked them what they expected, and they responded that they wanted something classical, something with a nice melody like Mozart." And "to the point." Visitors usually don't stay longer than half a minute, he says. "I'm working on an art form that requires sustained concentration and that creates cognitive dissonance in a YouTube environment."