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American Opera Enters its Golden Age - 2003-03-04

William Bolcom’s A View From the Bridge is one of 26 works performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera this season. Based on Arthur Miller’s play about an Italian immigrant family in New York, it premiered in 1999 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Mr. Bolcom says other companies at home and abroad are interested in it.

“It is now being played in a German opera house in a town called Hagen, near Dortmund, I’d never heard of it before,” he says. “But I went to the production rehearsals for a week, and it’s all done in German, by the way. It’s a much smaller production. It’s only an 800-seat house, but it seems to work very well.”

William Bolcom is already working on another opera for the Chicago Lyric, A Wedding based on Robert Altman's 1978 movie. And he is negotiating a commission for a new chamber opera in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Mr. Bolcom is one of many American composers producing new works.

John Adams, whose first opera Nixon in China has gained international fame, is creating a new work for the San Francisco Opera. It is based on the life of Robert Oppenheimer, a major figure in developing the atomic bomb. Tobias Picker is adapting Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy for the 2004 opening at the Metropolitan Opera. At least another hundred new opera projects are in the making in the United States.

Operatic world premieres by large companies such as New York’s Metropolitan, the Houston Grand Opera, the Chicago Lyric and the San Francisco Opera have gained international attention. But companies as small as Central City Opera in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado are catching up.

The company is staging its fourth world premiere this summer - Gabriel’s Daughter by Henry Mollicone, based on local history. In 1956, the company had its most famous world premiere -- The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore, also set in Central City.

“It seems that in the past 20 years, opera audiences and opera companies in the United States have wanted to tell the American story through this wonderful art form of opera,” says Marc Scorca, President of Opera America, a Washington-based organization servicing North American opera companies, producers, singers and patrons.

“So yes, there have been many new operas based on American historic events or American literature or famous American people,” he says.

Mr. Scorca says since 1990, American opera companies have produced 120 new works. Some are grand like John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. Others are chamber works, such as Marc Adamo’s Little Women.

Little Women has been the most frequently performed North American opera of the 2001-2002 season. Marc Scorca says one reason is that it is not as expensive to produce as a grand opera like The Ghosts of Versailles.

According to Opera America, almost 50% of new operas are produced by companies with smaller budgets of up to $1 million a year. Few opera companies can afford the lavish opera productions that cost several million dollars. Marc Scorca says Opera America has helped its members find creative funding solutions.

“We have helped our opera companies put together collaborations wherein one opera company premiers the opera. It then goes in the next season to a second opera company and then to a third opera company, and sometimes as many as eight opera companies participate in co-productions of new works,” Mr. Scorca says.

Some co-productions cross international borders. Therese Raquin by Tobias Picker is a joint project by the Dallas Opera, the San Diego Opera and L'Opera de Montreal in Canada.

Producing a new music drama is always a risk. To give a second chance to a work that failed the first time around is even a greater risk. Charles MacKay, director of the Opera Theater of Saint Louis took such a risk two years ago when he staged a revised version of Dominick Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Fire.

Mr. Argento’s work, based on Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, was rejected both by the public and by the critics during its first run in New York City in 1979.

Carmen, La Traviata, Madam Butterfly. La Boheme was even panned at its premiere,” he says. “And fortunately, these pieces all had a second run of performances and we feel that it’s very, very important for contemporary works to have a second or third hearing. And that is really part of our mission along with commissioning and presenting brand new works to look at works that are worthwhile.”

The Saint Louis Opera Theater version of Miss Havisham’s Fire was a great success.

The number of concert opera performances has also grown in recent years. Many new companies offer rarely performed and lesser-known works, such as Donizetti’s Marino Faliero.

“We have more opera companies, offering more performances than ever before,” says Mr. Scorca. “We have a broader spectrum of the repertoire, not only new operas and operas from the 18th and 19th century, but even operas from the 16th and 17th century. So from the perspective of the breadth and diversity of performances we’ve never had anything like this before.”

Radio and public television broadcasts have had an important role in bringing opera to an American audience; so have the musicians. Marc Scorca says currently, some of the world’s most famous composers and opera stars are American. They help promote American opera through their concerts and recordings.

American soprano Renee Fleming created the role of Blanche in the 1998 opera Streetcar Named Desire. An aria from it is featured in her album of American opera arias.

Observers say contemporary American opera reflects American society much better than Hollywood movies. We’ll leave it up to Miss Fleming to prove that.