The cover of The Opera Issue of The Dramatist
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Golden Age (?) of Opera
Photo collage from four different opera productions
Left to right: The 2016 world premiere of The Shining at Minnesota Opera, photo Ken Howard; the 2019 world premiere of The Central Park Five at Long Beach Opera, photo by Keith Ian Polakoff; the 2021 world premiere of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson at The Glimmerglass Festival, photo by Karli Cadel; the 2017 world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard.

many pundits in the opera world have christened the last two decades or so “The Golden Age of American Opera.” Of course, it’s usually centuries after the fact when pundits choose to alloy eras to exceptional periods of artistic history—and for all we know we may be living in “The Leaden Age of American Opera.” But this statistic from OPERA America, the national service organization for the industry, does indeed support the notion that there has been a dramatic upsurge in the number of new operas produced in this country:  

 

“Since 1900, over 1,300 new operatic works have been produced by professional opera companies in North America. Of that, 864 operas premiered between 1995 and 2021.”

 

This means that nearly 67% of all new American operas have been created and produced in the last 25 years. While this statistic doesn’t come close to rivaling the number of musicals that were created in the same period, it certainly indicates a significant—and relatively recent—change in the industry.

What’s the reason for this sudden interest in new American opera? Why is nearly every opera company in this country programming new American operas—when it seemed impossible to do so two decades ago? And how has this upsurge helped rehabilitate opera in the U.S.?

American opera took a long time to take hold as a cultural phenomenon in this country. While there were operas created before the 1950s (notably, Treemonisha by Scott Joplin and Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward), it wasn’t until after the semicentennial of the last century that opera began to find an American identity. Composers Mark Blitzstein, Samuel Barber, Douglas Moore, Leonard Bernstein, Gian Carlo Menotti, Aaron Copland and later Dominick Argento, along with librettists Gertrude Stein, Lillian Helman, John Latouche, helped forge a uniquely American voice in storytelling. Opera even appeared on Broadway, suggesting that the worlds of opera and musical theatre were less segregated than they are today.

Then American opera seemed to stall for a decade or two. But found its footing again with such operas as X, The Life and Times of Malcom X by Anthony Davis and Thulani Davis (1986), Nixon in China by John Adams and Alice Goodman (1987), Little Women by Mark Adamo (1998), A View from the Bridge (by William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein (1999), Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally (2000), and The Grapes of Wrath by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie (2007). These operas, and a few more, proved to opera companies that there was a place at the table—and in their seasons—for opera with a distinctly American identity. Suddenly the floodgates opened up. As James Robinson, Artistic Director of Opera Theatre of St Louis, explains: “Opera companies typically relied on the performance of twenty or so operas from what we would call the ’standard repertory’ for decades. In the past twenty years there has been an explosion of interest in not just creating new works but in the audience’s appetite for them. Theatre companies have always enthusiastically created modern works that reflect the people and times around us, and it seems as if the opera world has finally caught up. It has completely changed the landscape.”

This change was necessary. If theatre is sometimes called a dying art form, then opera in this country had pretty much given up the ghost. American audiences were getting weary of the elitism and irrelevance of old opera, while directors were becoming more and more desperate at enforcing relevance by stretching operas in ways their creators wouldn’t recognize. The inevitable—and obvious—question began to be asked, “Hey, instead of setting Tosca in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, why not create a new opera that actually takes place in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire?

At the same time stories were evolving in opera, a strong turn toward musical tonality, once thought unfashionable, reemerged. For producers, that meant that the music in opera became a little easier to sell to audiences. As Evans Mirageas, Artistic Director of Cincinnati Opera, says: “Opera producers awakened to the tonal and approachable world of today’s composers. The ‘new Romanticism’ and Minimalism’ that began in the early 1980s quickly migrated from instrumental music to opera. Younger women and men who became pupils of those composers or those aesthetics were given ‘permission’ to write melodies again after the long post World War II drought of serial style music, promoted by conservatories and the music press.”

Larger regional companies like Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Houston Grand Opera, Minnesota Opera, Atlanta Opera, Santa Fe Opera and Seattle Opera increased their efforts at commissioning large works for their stages. At the same time, a number of new companies formed that helped redefine the art form. Music-Theatre Group was one of the first companies in the country to press the reset button on opera, but in the new century other outlier companies came into prominence. Urban Arias in Washington, DC only produces works by living composers and librettists. Beth Morrison Projects tirelessly works as a renegade company and prides itself on stretching the definition of opera with each new production, as does Yuval Sharon’s company Industry in Los Angeles. And San Francisco boasts one company—Opera Parallèle—that focuses on new chamber work only and another—West Edge Opera—that programs one new work each season. At the same time, many major opera companies have begun creating second stages to produce more intimate works.

While opera companies began commissioning new operas, it became glaringly apparent that training for composers and librettists lagged far behind. Musical and theatre programs at conservatories and schools hadn’t counted on this growing need to create new opera. Soon, The American Opera ProjectsComposers and The Voice program was born and not long after, American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program, New DramatistsComposer Librettist Studio, Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, and Virginia Arts Festival’s John Duffy Institute. These programs continue to groom a new generation of composers and librettists to write opera, to collaborate, to study past operas and musicals, and to learn the specific nature of voice types and orchestration. At the same time, a number of companies began to help incubate new operas: “Opera Fusion” a collaboration between Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Houston Grand Opera’s “HGOco,” Fort Worth Opera’s “Frontiers,” Santa Fe Opera’s “Opera for All Voices,” West Edge Opera’s “Snapshot,” and Seattle Opera’s “Creation Lab” are just a few. Robin Guarino, director of Opera Fusion, says, “Over the last seven-plus years CCM singers, conductors, composers and directors have been involved in the development of nineteen new works almost all of which have gone on to world premieres. This frontline experience has informed their process not only in the creation of new works but in the re-interpreting of traditional repertoire with a 21st-century mindset.”

Francesca Zambello, Artistic Director of Washington National Opera and Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, posits this question, “Why did the writing of new operas slow down for much of the twentieth century? For so long, “contemporary opera” was the norm. Monteverdi and Busenello, Mozart and Da Ponte, Verdi and Piave, Strauss and Hoffmannsthal—they were writing for their contemporaries. Even if they set their works in distant times and lands (usually to get past the censors), they were speaking to contemporary concerns. Why else would you bother? I am not sure why the stream of new works slowed, but I am glad to see us getting back to being a truly living art form, which is what opera has been for most of its history.”

Mark Campbell
Mark Campbell

s Pulitzer and Grammy Award-winning work includes 39 opera librettos, lyrics for seven musicals, and text for six song cycles and three oratorios. He recently created the first prize in the history of opera designated specifically for opera librettists: the Campbell Opera Librettist Prize. www.markcampbellwords.com