I was startled when I read an article written by the music critic of the Dallas Morning News, Scott Cantrell, criticizing both Dallas Opera and Fort Worth Opera Festival for an "unbalanced" season with too many world premieres and not enough standard/existing repertoire.
What's wrong with wanting a balanced, varied season with works from several eras and styles? Well, nothing in principle, and that is the way many opera companies plan their seasons. And certainly, there will always be audience members, board members, and donors who want to hear their favorite classic titles as many times as possible.
But opera is not just a form of entertainment, it is also a form of art. And as such, opera impresarios have a responsibility to not only please the masses, but also to challenge them, and give them opportunities to make new discoveries. Planning an opera season is a deliriously daunting task because there are so many variables to balance. I have interviewed many an Artistic Director about season planning, and know that choosing what operas a company will present each season is akin to spinning plates on broomsticks while running in place on top of a beach ball. Each company has a complicated algorithm on which they make their choices including what can sell tickets, what will please donors, what will garner press, and what will attract new audiences for their particular market. While some companies are forced to stay within their parameter of presenting mostly popular works, sprinkled with a few riskier choices, other companies have found secure enough footing to push the boundaries of what audiences will "accept" by presenting new works more frequently.
Companies that have gained financial security, community support, and are lead by courageous impresarios actually have a responsibility to push past the normal "we'll slip one unusual work in here occasionally and as long as we give them a Butterfly and a Barber they won't complain too much" trench. Now, this particular critic wasn't stating that the company should only present standard repertoire -- he listed some gems from the operatic canon that are underperformed but deserve more attention.
However, the fact remains that traditional opera companies must still think about the importance of their bottom line, audience development, and the future of their company. And what has proven to attract the youngest, most diverse crowd is modern operas that appeal to audiences directly both theatrically and musically. While it would be wonderful if every opera company presented works from each era from baroque to modern, including rarely performed operas by Tchaikovsky and Britten, we're living in a treacherous time of diminishing cultural attention spans, and competing with Netflix for audiences. Each opera company has to balance their desire to present great art with their responsibility to find their audience. People are no longer exposed to opera as a cultural norm by seeing Beverly Sills on Johnny Carson. The audience that is of the age that would start to appreciate classical music hasn't been exposed to it the way the previous generation was, and is no longer a guaranteed group upon which opera and classical music can rely. So opera companies have to look at all the ways in which they can adapt, change, and stay viable and interesting to people of all ages. Dramatically compelling new musical works in the viewer's own language seem to be the key attracting a more diverse crowd. If you look at the audiences at the Prototype Festival in New York City or The Industry in Los Angeles, you see a LOT of younger people. And hopefully these new pieces can act as a "gateway drug," and the spectacle and musical experience of seeing a modern opera will entice those younger viewers to see La Boheme or even The Makropolus Case or Peter Grimes, which absolutely deserve to be more frequently presented and experienced.
And let's consider for a moment the composers and pieces chosen for this season. Dallas opera, which is just beginning to expand their championing of new works, has chosen two composers whose previous operas have been the two of the most reproduced new works of this century; Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking), and Mark Adamo (Little Women). While it may seem odd to present two premieres in one season, I don't see how anyone could argue with presenting Dallas audiences with the opportunity to be the very first to hear brand new works by these composers who have already created such popular masterpieces. Not to mention the Heggie opera, Great Scott, will feature opera mega-star Joyce DiDonato, and the Adamo opera, Becoming Santa Claus, a family friendly holiday opera, has the potential to become an operatic Nutcracker. How could Dallas possibly pass up on either of these opportunities? And Fort Worth Opera Festival, also presenting two world premieres, has chosen the highly anticipated opera about the life of JFK, the subject matter of which alone has the potential to garner an enormous amount of press, and has already generated a great deal of buzz because of the prior successes of the composer librettist team David Little and Royce Vavrek.
One other important thing to consider when thinking about presenting world premieres as opposed to other neglected masterpieces is that presenting the music of living composers keeps the art form alive and viable, and keeps artists creating art. Handel wrote 49 operas. This will be Jake Heggie's 6th full-scale opera and Mark Adamo's 4th. And trust me, I've worked with both of these men -- it's not because they are slackers. It's because the immediate need for new operas ain't what it used to be. But I believe that the tide is starting to turn and companies are starting to discover that presenting new works by composers isn't just a worthy thing to do because it's good for the art form as a whole. They are tapping into a younger, enthusiastic audience who is interested in experiencing music and drama through the voices of today's artists and composers. And that is very fortuitous for an art form that has been struggling with its identity and watching companies fold right and left as their audiences die out. Remember when San Diego opera almost decided to shut its doors because they felt they just couldn't attract a new audience with their big budget mostly standard repertoire seasons?
Now it's time for me to admit something to you: I am not an unbiased party in all of this. I am singing Queen Sophine in Mark Adamo's Becoming Santa Claus in Dallas in December, and I know and love Jake Heggie as well because I have sung in several productions of Dead Man Walking. I also have made no secret of the fact that I admire what Darren Keith Woods has done in Fort Worth and think his willingness to take risks with new repertoire has made a huge impact on the uptick of new operas being presented by regional opera companies. However, the real reason I felt compelled to write this article is my position as an arts advocate and opera pusher -- I think everyone in the arts community, critics included, has the responsibility to support arts organizations willing to take risks by presenting living art, or we could all be out of a job before too long. And if I weren't super passionate about this subject, do you really think I would write an article arguing with a reviewer who I know for a fact will have the opportunity to review my singing for a major newspaper in a few months?
Actually, forget everything I just said. Let's just stick to Carmen and also, my high notes were crystaline and my low notes were effortless, right? RIGHT??
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