Beth Morrison is determined to make opera as popular in the 21st century as it was in the 19th, when the form was led by visionaries like Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. This modern impressaria has been commissioning new works from some of the hottest young composers for a decade. “This is a new golden age of American opera," she insists. "And I truly believe that. I think it is a great moment in America for opera.”
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Her passion for this passionate art form is palpable. She says she has one rule of thumb when it comes to commissioning a new project.
“It always, for me, starts with the composer," she explains. "So, I will not do anything unless I am, like, mad crazy about the music and the composer and really feeling like they are contributing something to the field that is different than what somebody else is contributing. And their voice is 100 percent true and unique.”
And those voices are contemporary. The operas Morrison commissions reflect the times, telling wide ranging tales, from a dystopian future to politics in Pakistan.
“Beth Morrison is interested in relevance and the current, you know, topics of the day," says composer Mohammed Fairouz, who finds musical inspiration in literary and philosophical sources from around the world. "So, that is, I think, part of what appeals to her.”
The Arab-American artist is currently working with Morrison on an opera about the life of assassinated Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. “The story itself is so larger than life that only the, sort of, ridiculous spectacle of the operatic theater seems to be able to contain it,” he says. His opera, Bhutto, will premiere at the Pittsburgh Opera next year.
Morrison collaborates with producers as well as composers. She runs her non-profit from her apartment in Brooklyn, but partners with arts organizations throughout the United States to present new work.
Watch the trailer for Dog Days, which follows an American family in the near future who slowly starve as war rages.
David T. Little's post-apocalyptic opera Dog Days has played in venues across the country. It was one of several pieces he developed under Beth Morrison’s collaborative eye.
“She really trusts the artists to know what they need, first of all, from a development process, and to know what the work needs to be. And views her position as supporting that vision and offering feedback on that vision, but really trusting that the artist has the correct vision that needs to be brought to life.”
Every January, Morrison co-produces an opera festival called "Prototype" in New York City. One of the works featured this year was Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, based on Lars von Trier’s 1996 film about a couple struggling with disability and intimacy.
“I feel like Beth creates the conditions for us to create our best work,” Mazzoli says, noting that the film was ripe for operatic treatment, with its potent combination of sex, religion and transgression.
“Breaking the Waves ... is a story that is about big ideas; it is about the nature of goodness, the nature of loyalty, the nature of faith. And what happens when all these things sort of contradict each other, or get in the way. What do you do in that impossible situation to still be a good person?”
A full season
Beth Morrison may well be one of the busiest producers in the opera world. “This year we have five world premieres," she says, "we are doing nine tours and our Festival, and then, some workshops for some things coming up.”
But that is not enough for her. Even as she has six new works in various stages of development, Morrison is also actively looking for as yet unknown composers to produce.
“I think my challenge now is to identify the next generation. And that is exciting, and we are working on that.” So the golden age can continue.