In a 2015 interview, Marc Scorca, president and CEO of the non-profit service organization OPERA America, conveyed his optimism for the future of American opera:
Today, we see new operas being performed in our major companies and at new works laboratories, which ten years ago didn’t exist nearly in the numbers that they exist today. There are composers, librettists, directors, and designers who really want to do new American opera for a whole variety of reasons…We now have an American opera repertoire.
OPERA America was established in 1970 by professional opera companies for opera companies. While their professional company membership today continues to predominantly feature traditional opera companies in North America, they now offer artistic services to a wider range of nontraditional entities that operate within and beyond the field of opera. As a national organization, it makes sense that OPERA America’s current mission statement prioritizes the creation and excellence of North American works especially. But OPERA America was not always devoted to new works. In fact, this priority only developed after the organization’s first decade in response to critical changes in the field. OPERA America members became concerned with the dearth of new American operas and the stagnation of standard European repertoire. In response to this perceived crisis, they designated a landmark suite of grants to cultivate new music theater collaborations.
American opera’s previous heyday occurred in the 1960s when the Ford Foundation commissioned 22 works, two of which were produced by the Metropolitan Opera, one each by San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and 11 by the New York City Opera. Familiar titles include Robert Ward’s The Crucible (1961), Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra (1966), and Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1967). These new operas had mixed reception among audiences and singers, who often preferred 18th- and 19th-century standard repertoire. Opera houses also found that the new works required more costly preparations, such as extra rehearsal time for roles that singers usually never had an opportunity to perform again. Although the Ford Foundation successfully extended the American opera repertoire, their commissioning program was not sustainable and it ceased when the money ran out. Thus, during OPERA America’s formative years in the early 1970s, U.S. opera companies encountered a relative downturn in financial support for new works.
By the late 1970s, a cohort of progressive opera and theater administrators reached beyond the boundaries of opera by galvanizing grants for collaborations. The National Endowment for the Arts debuted the Opera-Musical Theater program in 1979, which enabled interaction between opera and theater companies that previously had been assigned to the separate divisions of music and theater, respectively. The NEA Opera-Musical Theater program’s advisory board listed diverse figures, including opera company general directors David Gockley and Kurt Herbert Adler, opera composers Thea Musgrave and Carlisle Floyd, musical theater composers Stephen Sondheim and John Kander, and theater producers Hal Prince and Stuart Ostrow. Although the Opera-Musical Theater program successfully funded premieres and fostered new works in their early stages, this program alone did not enact the transformation OPERA America professionals were pursuing. In the early 1980s, productions of new American operas by U.S. companies remained limited: 1981 saw four world premieres in the United States, 1982 had seven, 1983 had five, and 1984 had only three. At this juncture, the forward-looking members of OPERA America hoped to stimulate the creation of any new works, even if their ultimate desire was for the works to become canonical with repeat performances.
A network of arts professionals, including Rockefeller Foundation Arts Director Howard Klein and impresarios Harvey Lichtenstein and David Gockley, believed the solution was to look beyond opera establishments to the vital world of experimental music theater, most successfully represented by the collaborative efforts of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson in Einstein on the Beach (1976). Many of these music theater artists were active in the Downtown New York scene—Glass, Wilson, Robert Ashley, Laurie Anderson, and Lee Breuer—but others, including Paul Dresher and George Coates, worked in San Francisco. They had little or no contact with U.S. opera companies at the time. OPERA America President David DiChiera contended that “it was necessary to effect a change within the opera field and not let opera companies be ‘end run’ by the creation of new music theater within other fields, for that would serve to accentuate even more the atrophy current within our industry.”
OPERA America initiated new undertakings to address these issues with the help of Klein and Ann Farris Darling, director of the NEA Opera-Musical Theater Program. In August of 1983, Klein, Darling, and OPERA America Executive Director Martin Kagan and President David DiChiera held a three-day meeting in Detroit with 32 participants: composers, conductors, playwrights, stage directors, and opera house general directors with experience in new opera and related music theater works. The invitees were strategic: the meeting planners specifically wanted to bring together artists from the worlds of opera and musical theater. All attendees considered the particular limitations or opportunities that influenced opera companies in the creation of new American works. They brainstormed methods to minimize the artistic and monetary risks that determined whether or not a company would commission new operas.
Klein believed that opera companies ought to observe the theater world for inspiration: “Unlike theater, which nourished playwrights through workshops and productions, opera had no farm team for creators.” This issue, along with the time and money needed for commissions and productions, drove Klein and others to set up a support system for creating new works titled “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” (hereafter OFTEAB). The program offered three types of grants: Exploration Fellowships (allowing personnel to see new works and meet artists), Team Building Grants (funding artist/administrator meetings for potential works), and Development Grants (subsidizing creative costs for commissions and productions).
Yet even as OPERA America personnel launched OFTEAB, they were not convinced all opera companies would take advantage of its grants. Consequently, OFTEAB’s first project director had the key duty of visiting and interviewing opera company administrators across North America to diagnose the reasons why they did not program new works. Their hire, Ben Krywosz, was a stage director who had experience with innovative music theater creation through the National Institute for Music Theater at Minnesota Opera. After meeting with dozens of opera companies, he noted in his final report that “money was only part of the problem. In fact, the implicit (and sometimes explicit) mission of most opera companies was to produce masterpieces of 18th- and 19th-century European opera. Creating new work was a completely different activity that was not particularly compatible with the production process of most opera companies.” In order for OFTEAB to work, Krywosz felt these companies needed to broaden their horizons and mission statements to include the creation of new operas. Some companies resisted OFTEAB, as they were not keen to change their approach. “Playing a pro-active role in challenging the field’s assumptions about the operatic form,” Krywosz explained, “was seen by some in the field as a subversive activity, inconsistent with OPERA America’s broader goals of supporting opera.” The Detroit meeting participants had predicted this issue, which is why OFTEAB’s funding, namely the exploration fellowships and pre-commissioning grants, functioned as educational outreach for general directors who were unfamiliar with emerging artists and new processes of creating music theater.
For more details about the particular works that resulted from OFTEAB and the risk-taking arts administrators involved, see “Funding Opera for the 80s and Beyond: The Role of Impresarios in Creating a New American Repertoire” in the Spring 2017 issue of American Music.
The influence of “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” on the American opera landscape became clear by its completion in 1990. Nontraditional opera companies, among them the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia and the Music-Theatre Group in New York City, now appeared as OPERA America member organizations, which continued to grow in number throughout the 1990s. The annual number of American opera premieres had also increased throughout the decade (e.g., 1998 had 31). In fact, this rate has remained constant to the present day: an average of 30 works premiered each year between 1995 and 2015.
The above average of 30 new works per year resulted from a 2015 OPERA America study that tracked the numbers, names, and composer demographics of North American world premieres over the past 20 years. This document offers a useful window into the organization’s more recent institutional priorities. For instance, the report found that only 71 (11%) of the 589 works premiered during this period have had more than one production. OPERA America’s programs have triumphed with the rise of annual premieres, yet most of these works have not entered the operatic canon with revivals. The exceptions belong to composers Mark Adamo and Jake Heggie, who according to the report enjoyed the highest number of revivals: Adamo’s Little Women (1998) had 66 and Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000) had 42. Philip Glass followed with 25 revivals (of multiple operas) and the highest number of world premieres (12 operas). Another area of concern for OPERA America is the lack of gender diversity. Only 41 out of 373 total composers were female. Today OPERA America has addressed this gap by facilitating a Women’s Opera Network and new grants for female composers.
Despite these achievements, Krywosz looks back at the 1980s as “heady times” compared to today, in which new works are more common. He assessed the situation over email in 2014: “Most of the work is fairly staid, new wine in old bottles, and we are headed dangerously toward a rather boring convention of naturalistic prose librettos, set in an arioso/recit style that doesn’t even begin to take advantage of the power of music-theater.” Today Krywosz continues to advocate for boundary-crossing works over in Minnesota as artistic director of Nautilus Music-Theater, where he works as a producer, director, and dramaturg of new operas and other forms of music theater. Some may perceive OPERA America’s mission of reaching “within and beyond the opera field” as empty talk, but Krywosz points out “there is a contingent within the organization (Beth Morrison, Paul Dresher, HERE, etc.) that [is] more adventuresome and can’t be discounted.”
At the same time, as John Pippen argues in a previous article in this series, “New music is a culture that tends to romanticize risk, and I think we ought to push back on that romanticizing. For all its aesthetic innovation, new music remains a job for many people.” Perhaps the same could be said of new American opera. Debates over its future highlight a complex web of expectations concerning not only the importance of radical artistic vision but also the commercial realities and conventional operatic norms of larger institutions that cannot afford to fail in the same way that smaller organizations might.
Returning to Scorca’s point at the beginning, if “we now have an American opera repertoire,” what kind of repertoire is it? In addition to Beth Morrison Projects, American Opera Projects and the American Lyric Theater aim to shape this repertoire from the ground up. A range of small organizations, Opera Parallèle and The Industry among them, also champion contemporary opera and music theater, and their influence has radiated outward: Opera Parallèle’s artistic director Nicole Paiement is now a principal guest conductor at The Dallas Opera. Such larger institutions continue to sprinkle new works into their programming, often working with arts incubators and shouldering costs through coproductions. But the “American New Opera Machine” still has its downsides: Frank Pesci, for instance, recently described the challenges emerging artists face when trying to break onto the American opera scene. As the field continues to work for change, the legacy of OFTEAB remains at OPERA America with its New Works Forums, Exploration Grants, and Audience and Repertoire Development funds.
Sasha Metcalf will begin a new position this fall as a program analyst at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program. Her research, featured in NewMusicBox and American Music, examines the interplay between administrators, artists, and performing arts institutions during the late 20th century. Previously, Metcalf was a visiting assistant professor of musicology at Vanderbilt University and a lecturer in the writing program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.