Taking Opera for a Spin ; American Operas Are Bursting with Activity and Attracting Crowds, but Is It Enough to Turn Them into Tomorrow's Classics?

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For two nights this fall, some 140,000 people packed into a Boston city park to see a show full of songs and spectacle. No, it wasn't the Rolling Stones on tour: It was a free production of "Carmen," performed in English by the Boston Lyric Opera.

In December, a production of "La Boheme" will open on Broadway. The pet project of innovative movie director Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge"), it will introduce audiences of "The Producers" and "The Lion King" to the opera in its original Italian, using three rotating casts of young, unknown singers. After strong reviews in San Francisco, it's become one of the most anticipated Broadway openings of the season.

Is America about to put its own, contemporary stamp on opera, that centuries-old import from Europe? Maybe.

While it may be too much to call this burst of activity a trend toward "Americanizing" opera, it's certainly a sign of life, and that's enough to get opera enthusiasts cheering. Attendance at American opera houses has been up during the past decade, though that trend may slip a little this year because of difficult economic times.

Meanwhile, American operas written by living composers are not just winning premieres by major opera companies - they are being produced for a second or third time, a hint that they may survive to become part of the repertoire at opera companies.

Two recent operas based on popular American books and movies, "Dead Man Walking" and "Little Women," have been performed or are scheduled to be performed in 16 opera houses around the world.

American opera companies are also bringing in new audiences by blurring the line between musical theater and opera, performing works first seen on Broadway such as "A Little Night Music" and "Sweeney Todd," by Stephen Sondheim, or even Rodgers and Hammerstein shows.

Stretching the medium in less familiar directions are contemporary American composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, both of whom presented new works ("Three Tales" and "Galileo Galilei") in New York last month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Steady stream = survival

Those who are involved in producing opera and in training the next generation of opera singers say that the art form's long-term survival depends on producing a steady stream of new American works.

While Europe continues to reexamine works written in the 18th and 19th centuries, American companies are beginning to develop works with a distinctly American feel.

"There is a better chance that the future direction of the opera will rise on these shores than in Europe, assuming, that is, that it has a future," says Eric Johnson, who teaches opera performance at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. He says he's "always on the prowl for suitable contemporary American operas with a modern sensibility that my young students can relate to."

Only in an environment in which new works are performed time and again can the art form continue to evolve, observers say. And that means giving today's composers a chance to develop.

"Dead Man Walking" was Jake Heggie's first opera, points out Mark Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, an advocacy organization for professional opera companies.

"Verdi's first opera is pretty well forgotten. Mozart's first opera is certainly forgotten," says Mr. Scorca. "These masters became masters of composition at their 10th opera, their 15th opera.

What interests me particularly is that there is enough creative energy so that Jake or Mark Adamo ['Little Women'] or others have a chance to write their fifth, or sixth, or seventh operas. They are so talented, I believe that their later works will be even better."

New operas face special barriers. Not only must opera companies worry about whether audiences will accept an unknown work, in lieu of yet another go at "Carmen" or "Aida," but they often must spend more money on them. …