Opera Reaches for New Scale

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Teenagers in motley dress ranging from elegant party frocks to droopy jeans mill around the front entrance to the opera house in downtown San Francisco, awaiting the final dress rehearsal of the company's "Elixir of Love."

It's High School Night at the opera, a charmingly civil effort to bring the city's youth to its deepest cultural fountain, in the hope they will drink and enjoy. In fitting, grand opera tradition, this tableau plays out against a larger scrim of bad news in the opera world: Opera Pacific just ceased operation, Michigan Opera Theatre canceled the final show of its season, and New York City Opera just lost its cutting-edge new Belgian artistic director for lack of funds. Companies from New York to San Francisco are embracing everything from cheaper costume fabrics to fewer lights to cut costs.

But, say most opera watchers, there has rarely been a time when this most famously expensive art form didn't dance with financial disaster. The current woes mask a much larger and more meaningful story about the changing place of this 409-year-old European art form in American life, says Dana Gioia, departing chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). "Opera has come of age in the United States," says Mr. Gioia.

In recognition, the NEA two weeks ago awarded the first new federal arts medals in 26 years, the NEA Opera Honors. This past week, the Los Angeles Opera announced Ring Festival L.A., its first- ever 10-week arts festival anchored by a six-day production of Richard Wagner's four-opera "Ring" cycle slated for 2010. This citywide cultural collaboration showcases the world-class work of the L.A. Opera under superstar tenor, Placido Domingo, says expert Leslie Dunton-Downer, author of the reference book, "Opera."

By a wide array of measures, this "most civic of art forms," as Gioia calls it - for centuries an opera house has been the measure of a city's aspirations - is in full domestic flower. Since 1965, the number of opera companies has nearly tripled from 46 to 129 full- time groups and that many again in part-time and festival-based companies.

Beyond that - and perhaps more important - since 1990, American opera companies have premiered more than 200 new works by modern composers. Nearly every opera company in the country has a new work somewhere in its schedule, says Anthony Freud, general director of Houston Grand Opera and chairman of Opera America, the New York- based trade association. A generation ago, this was not true, but companies realize they must find ways to keep the art form alive "or risk becoming completely irrelevant," says Mr. Freud.

American composers such as Pulitzer-prize winner John Adams ("Nixon in China," "Death of Klinghoffer") have led the search for a more meaningful art form. "The stories are from our own time and they involve what I call mythic themes of American life," says Mr. Adams, who just released his memoir "Hallelujah Junction."

From Boston to Boise, companies of all sizes have embraced new works. According to Opera America, in 2006-07 alone North American companies opened 10 new world premieres. This drive for a fresh idiom combined with the introduction of supertitles, enabling opera patrons to follow the onstage action in English, has helped swell audiences nearly 45 percent over the past 20 years. …