On Fire: The New Opera

Five meditations on the future of opera.

A scene from Philip Glass’ 2009 opera Kepler. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Whether it’s due to social flattening (and the subsequent widespread aversion to historically elitist institutions) or generational lapses in classical education, there seems to be little question that opera has the odds stacked against it when courting Generation Z, millennials, and even their Generation X elders. Despite companies routinely employing strategies such as sex-lite marketing campaigns, movie theater simulcasts, big-name collaborations (touted as “innovative”), and lavish new productions, I doubt American opera companies can make the 400-year-old form appear hip enough to induce FOMO in younger audiences. Even Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, has famously said that he’s up against the “cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form” and that “grand opera is a kind of dinosaur of an art form.” Gelb is right. But I wonder if he and his peers know they are partly to blame. I mean, this is a terribly unadventurous group.

While it’s true that companies must get younger audiences into their houses if they’re to survive, they are infamously conservative, careful not to upset their base—the grand- and great-grandparents of Generation Z. So it’s always the standard offerings of Mozart, Rossini, Puccini, and Verdi that are first to receive makeovers (those “innovative” and lavish new productions I mentioned earlier). But therein lies the problem. Makeovers won’t do. Opera companies need to produce new operas. Brand-new. “New” connotes “now,” and, despite its intrinsic drawing power for younger audiences, who are ever-interested in the latest thing, “new” remains a gamble for dyed-in-the-wool companies and their subscribers. Companies, even those with multimillion-dollar budgets, aren’t putting a fraction of their full weight behind new operas.  


The 2018-19 season of the leading U.S. companies (Chicago Lyric, Houston Grand, the Metropolitan, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Seattle Opera, and Los Angeles) bears this out. Depending on how you count, no more than 10 operas (out of roughly 66) could be considered new or fairly contemporary (from, say, the last 50 or 60 years, which some would argue stretches the seams of “contemporary”). I’ve excluded the old but quintessentially thought-of-as “newish” workhorses Porgy and Bess, Dialogues of the Carmelites, and The Turn of the Screw, all of which would require me to reach back to 1935, 1953, and 1954, respectively. While smaller niche companies and music schools may be mounting dozens of newer works, it’s doubtful those efforts gain traction nationally for such works at top-tier houses. The Met and other leading companies must take the lead.

While anyone who’s experienced the sublimity of live opera would be grateful for any operatic offering (and here in the U.S. we’re lucky: There are thousands of performances annually), many, like me, would be ecstatic if they could hear recent works, works that explicitly address living in this century. Rigoletto, Elektra, Don Giovanni, Carmen, and La Bohème consider age-old questions about the human condition, but, for younger audiences, I’d bet Seattle Opera’s offering of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs or Santa Fe Opera’s Doctor Atomic are generally more relatable and relevant to their day-to-day lives.

When I asked him about this, Jake Heggie, composer of operas such as Dead Man Walking and It’s a Wonderful Life, had this to say:

11/1/2019 11:25:46 PM

It’s true that the opera repertory is stagnant and needs new works. But opera is mostly about music. What do modern composers have against lovely melodies and harmonies? The music from contemporary operas I've heard is largely dissonant, atonal, and discordant: unpleasant to the ears. Go to YouTube and listen to some clips from, as examples, The Exterminating Angel, Lessons in Love and Violence, or Written on Skin. Is this is supposed to induce FOMO in younger audiences? There’s a reason why opera has flourished for 400 years, and I doubt the offerings from composers over the past 50 years will contribute much to future longevity.

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