Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Opera in America

I’ve just encountered an engaging article on “America’s Opera Boom” by Jonathan Leaf. For anyone interested in opera or the arts generally, there’s a lot of interesting information in Leaf’s article, and also some encouraging news about opera in America.

Concerning the growth of opera companies and a surprisingly healthy audience size, Leaf writes:

“The U.S. now has 125 professional opera companies, 60 percent of them launched since 1970, according to the trade group OPERA America. The U.S. has more opera companies than Germany and nearly twice as many as Italy. In the most comprehensive recent study, the National Endowment for the Arts found that between 1982 and 2002, total attendance at live opera performances grew 46 percent.
“Annual admissions are now estimated at 20 million, roughly the same attendance as NFL football games (22 million, including playoffs, in 2006–07). In part, this reflects a shift toward seeing opera domestically. “Foreign opera destinations like Salzburg and Glyndebourne are more expensive, and more Americans are staying home—and probably feeling safer for it,” says Richard Gaddes, general director of the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico.”

Obviously this is not to suggest that opera rivals professional sports in popularity in the U.S., for if you include television viewing, the NFL’s audience dwarfs that of opera, but nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many people do attend live opera. Leaf does point out elsewhere in the article that this doesn’t mean opera makes big money – it doesn’t – but most opera companies in the U.S. are able to find donors (who are mostly passionate about opera) to make ends meet despite relatively meager state support in most U.S. contexts.

In some of the more interesting discussion in the essay, Leaf points out that it’s not just opera in general that’s popular but new opera, and that the cultivation of new opera in America is happening largely outside of New York. Here is Leaf:

“On the morning I meet them, Smith and Johnson are on a high, savoring a recent rave review from the Los Angeles Times for their production of a new opera by Ricky Ian Gordon based on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Minnesota Opera’s successful introduction of new works is characteristic of a wider pattern. Almost all of the most acclaimed recent operas have been introduced outside New York. John Adams’s Nixon in China was first presented by the Houston Grand Opera, Tobias Picker’s Emmeline by Santa Fe, Kirke Mechem’s Tartuffe by San Francisco. The last, a gorgeous, touching, and amusing opera, has had over 300 productions in six countries since its premiere in 1980.
“Stefania de Kenessey, a highly regarded new composer working on an opera based on Tom Wolfe’s novel about Wall Street, Bonfire of the Vanities—with Wolfe’s enthusiastic encouragement—says that companies outside New York can be easier to work with. “The regional companies usually plan out their schedules three to four years in advance, while the Met plans out about eight years ahead. That means the regionals can be more flexible in picking new works and can more easily spot and take advantage of musical trends.”

From a later portion of the text:

“This trend toward doing new works appears to be broadening. According to Santa Fe’s Gaddes, 'The repertory of opera companies has changed [since] 10 or 15 years ago. It’s become more adventurous and more contemporary.' In many cases, the premieres of new or unfamiliar productions are selling better than the repertory staples like Verdi’s La Traviata. The Minnesota Opera notes that it sold more than 98 percent of the tickets for The Grapes of Wrath, and St. Louis is proud of its sellout of an opera by David Carlson based on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. This summer’s Santa Fe program includes the American premiere of Chinese contemporary composer Tan Dun’s Tea: Mirror of the Soul, sung in English, and three other new productions.”

Leaf also has an interesting discussion of what makes New York’s Met unique, where this uniqueness is in some ways advantageous, in some ways disadvantageous, to opera in New York:

“The Met deserves its reputation, with the world’s best singers, a superb orchestra, and lavish spectacle. Last year, the Met, under its new general manager, Peter Gelb, inaugurated high-definition video presentations of several of its operas in movie theaters around the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Europe. But in other respects, the Met is ill-suited to assume a tutelary role. Few of today’s top singers first made their names on its stage, and the Met’s immense size works against both dramatic effect and subtle and refined singing.
“The Met is designed to hold an audience of nearly 4,000 in a structure with five ascending tiers and broad rows of seats. By contrast, La Scala in Milan has 2,000 seats; the Vienna State Opera, 1,700; and the State Opera in Berlin, 1,300. These more conventional operatic theaters, which can feel almost like drawing rooms, have an intimacy that the Met cannot come close to matching.
“Into the Met’s vast space, singers must project—without amplification—across a stage extending 80 feet back, 103 feet across, and 110 feet up to the rigging. The result is a preference in New York for singers with gargantuan, if sometimes metallic, voices. Not only can the hall’s scale dwarf the singers and the story, but it can damage young voices.”

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