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
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
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. …