From the Desk of Business Affairs: What’s In An Opera, Doc?
While Opera was the form that gave birth to the Broadway musical, the business of musical theatre writing has grown up since then. The documents that memorialize the rights of writers and the terms of their agreements are similar, but not the same. Since DG members, both librettists and composers, are writing more operas in recent years, we have begun to focus on that industry, to see how dramatists might be better protected when creating new work for that rarified environment. To do so, we must understand where the two industries diverged, how that divergence happened, and what it looks like now. So here’s a wildly simplistic history of the opera business as it relates to authors.
For centuries worth of European history, opera was the primary form of musical theatre. And for much of the last century, the operas being produced in America were primarily those that had been written by those long dead Europeans. Opera companies were not presenting “revivals;” no, instead they were presenting the canon to their audience, which was what their audiences demanded (or so they assumed).
Since the works of Mozart, Verdi, et al, were in the public domain, opera companies did not have to pay authorial royalties or deal with the other niceties required when dealing with living authors, which made operas somewhat less expensive and less complicated to produce.
But, beginning by the mid-nineteenth century, opera started to lose its market to a relatively new sub-genre, the operetta. These new works were lighter and comic, and so gained an audience. Then, contemporary writers like Gilbert & Sullivan, focusing on inventive wordplay and satirical stories, made the older works seem dated and archaic and new audiences began to be cultivated. Then, as new works started offering more story and spoken dialogue between musical interludes and arias... voila!... Show Boat. (I told you this would be simplistic.)
The Broadway musical would come to supplant opera as the popular musical entertainment of the day. The development of copyright law allowed authors to earn royalties from their performance rights, and musical theatre developed as an industry with the role of the dramatist as the primary creative force. The rights and compensation of authors increased to reflect this greater role when they formed the Dramatists Guild for their mutual benefit and protection, and Guild members–composers, lyricists, playwrights, and librettists–began to see each other as co-equal colleagues in this endeavor.
Meanwhile, opera companies had an aging audience resistant to change. Opera was becoming more of a niche entertainment for the well-heeled, as the musical theatre boomed in the latter half of the 20th century. The divide between classical music and popular music was reflected in the attitudes and business practices of the related but increasingly distinct musical theatre forms.
In recent decades, opera companies increased their commissions and productions of new works in order to survive, both as an art form and as an industry. They turned to leading playwrights and bookwriters to tell new stories in new ways and, in doing so, made opera relevant again to new writers and new audiences.
As opera began its resurgence, however, they found that these new writers were a worrisome bunch. These writers had grown up in a world where they owned their work (which could not be changed without their approval) and where they had approval over cast, director, and designers, and where they had co-equal compensation and billing with their composer colleagues. So, when they were commissioned to write operas, contemporary dramatists were confused and upset by their treatment in that world. The opera companies had evolved without a Dramatists Guild, producing public domain works by long dead writers with no need to be concerned about their authorial rights. As an art-form, opera had generally assigned greater value to the music rather than the words (though there were certainly noteworthy librettists in the canon), so the companies saw no need to concern themselves with the needs of librettists. Whatever benefits were to be provided to the writers would accrue primarily to the composers. But even contemporary composers were not thrilled with this disparity, as it made their collaboration with librettists more fraught and difficult, often requiring composers to either stand up on behalf of their co-authors or leaving their colleagues to stand up for themselves, without the leverage of the composers to make equitable deals.
This is where opera is today; new writers bringing in new audiences, but having to deal with an archaic business model. But if the old business wants to keep bringing new writers to their field, not only playwrights of great accomplishment but prominent composers as well, then the writers need to be afforded the control, compensation, and respect that they have earned in the musical theatre.
What does respect look like? It may take the form of billing rights, where many librettists are currently ignored and unbilled, and it may be a right to approve changes in their work, and it may be compensation that is more comparable to that of their co-author composers. Respect may also look like having a right to be at rehearsals, and to get equivalent accommodations, travel, and per diem.
The Dramatists Guild formed an Opera Committee a few years ago to study the current system of opera production in this country, to identify its inequities, and to recommend best practices to ensure a vibrant and growing field, with new voices bringing in new audiences as it moves forward into the future. You can watch the documentary they produced here.
Please contact the Guild if you would like to participate in the committee’s work. You can start by sharing with us the opera contracts you are currently considering or have recently signed, because understanding current practices is the best way for us to chart the path forward.