Opera and musical theater VIPs butt heads over the dramatic arts

Midway into November, the National Endowment for the Arts sponsored a seminar on opera and musical theater, for which the Chicago Lyric Opera played host. For two days, a large contingent of important and powerful people in all walks of those genres' artistic life talked at, with, around, and through one another.

The spectacles of Joe Papp of the New York Public Theatre, chiding Ardis Krainik, head of the Chicago Lyric Opera, or of Gary William Friedman expressing outrage that a even a single nickel of government money ''should go to a company that isn't entertaining new music,'' were nothing if not entertaining.

But serious issues were at stake. This was at once a session put on so that the recently appointed head of the endowment, Frank Hodsoll, could get a lay of the land, as well as an airing of the serious problems facing all institutions that make up the opera and musical-theater family in America today.

The major issue is money. Another is education - of audiences, performers, and even creators. Finding and keeping audiences interested in the new and the old turned out to be the primary preoccupation.

Both forms face outlandish cost problems. Broadway's newest musical hit cost Puccini's ''La Boheme'' two seasons back cost upwards of $750,000. To put on a thoroughly representative workshop of some new musical-theater piece could easily cost upwards of $100,000. In fact, the issue of holding workshops kept arising throughout the two days.

Baritone Timothy Nolen noted that workshops work well and inexpensively at the O'Neill Center (in New London, Conn.), enabling audiences and creators a chance to explore the dramatic possibilites of new works. Composer Conrad Susa said he could make do with what he heard in workshops to get an idea of what his music sounded like. Mr. Friedman, who has a show in progress Off Broadway, counteracted with what he called ''workshopitis.'' He said, ''I never worked on a piece for five years to have it be seen in its underwear!''

At the beginning of the seminar, it seemed as if the theater folk were viewing the opera people as money-thirsty beings intent on getting all they could to keep a lumbering-elephant art form alive. But it became evident that opera itself divides into several categories, such as keeper of the flame (the big internationally focused institutions); vital, original presenters of the traditional as well as the unusual (St. Louis in particular); a middle ground that offers the best of both worlds (Houston). Thus it also became clear that the supposed antagonisms were not as pronounced as first thought.

There will always be something of a rift between opera and Broadway, since little about opera is moneymaking whereas, everyone expects to make a financial killing on Broadway. Opera thrives today on the past, Broadway on the present. But the former still wants new works and the latter wants a forum to explore its rich past.

Broadway producer Stuart Ostrow was quite disturbed that nothing new and interesting was coming to the theater anymore - no geniuses of creativity as there were in the past. Richard Gaddes of the St. Louis Opera and John Crobsy of the Santa Fe Opera both confirmed that of countless unsolicited scores received annually, most are too poor for even passing consideration.

From there it was up to the likes of director-producer George Coates to point out that creative work was going on outside Broadway: Both he and theater director Tom O'Horgan discussed work-in-progress situations that fostered new works and were finding an audience.

Anthony Bliss of the Metropolitan Opera noted that his company would love to do a new opera now and then, that in fact, its two Centennial commissions are now at least three to four years away from production even if they were to be finished very soon (and neither work is near completion yet). But the Met would need to earmark a healthy $1 million to allow itself the financial room to fail, he said. Miss Krainik echoed the sentiment, citing how the world premiere of Penderecki's ''Paradise Lost'' almost sank the company financially. She added that Lyric was including a composer-in-residence program of its own devising (under the wing of music director Bruno Bartoletti).

And so it went. The most impassioned moment came from David Gockley, head of the Houston Grand Opera, who said too many of his audience were going to and supporting the opera for the wrong set of (social) reasons. An entire cross section of the public was not being involved in his institution at all. In 20 to 40 years, he noted, the closed-circle companies appealing merely to the social elite would be dead.

He sees the National Endowment as fulfilling a crucial role in inspiring new programs to address the issue of reaching a wider audience. ''There is something to the cross-pollination of these forms,'' he said, looking at the musical-theater people around him, ''that leaves as its legacies masterpieces. You can't create masterpieces - they are distillations of years of evolution.''

Mr. Ostrow picked up the note of desperation. He has seen Broadway go from relative sanity to lunacy in costs, and he feels things are nearing the point of no return. ''Cross-pollination is vital. We (musical-theater people) are desperate for help. New work is our lifeblood.'' And yet the track record of new work in all walks of opera and musical-theater life is poor. But all who were gathered at least agreed that it was worth trying to do something about and a cause to remain committed to.

This is what finally emerged from these two occasionally acrimonious, frequently long-winded days: Everyone in the room was passionately committed to his or her field of endeavor. The collective passion shone through as a common denominator, and part of that passion was a commitment in principle, or in actuality, to the new. If Mr. Hodsoll learned nothing else, he learned about that commitment which is invigorating, inspiring, and sustaining the opera and musical-theater art forms, despite the all-too-tangible problems they all face.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.