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Singers and North American Repertoire
Kelley Rourke
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The operatic tradition has long traded in exoticism—over the centuries, audiences and artists alike have been drawn to faraway places, mythological figures, and ancient regimes. In North America, one of the more recently established venues and breeding grounds for “the extravagant art,” opera often has been far removed from the everyday experiences of its artists and audiences. But as the century comes to a close, a quick look around yields evidence of a sea change: Opera companies, large and small, are regularly programming North American repertoire, and today’s singers are finding that a mix of old and new works is an artistically satisfying—and professionally viable—way to conduct a career.

Soprano Sheri Greenawald’s accomplishments demonstrate that being a cosmopolitan, sophisticated singer does not preclude performing “homegrown” repertoire. She has brought her formidable skills to many of the touchstone soprano roles, including Donna Anna, Musetta, Mimì, Anne Trulove, Pamina, Blanche (Les Dialogues des Carmélites), the Marschallin, and the Governess (Turn of The Screw), but Greenawald is perhaps best known for her work “closer to home.” Her repertoire also embraces everything from the title role in Barber’s Vanessa to the shrewish stepmother in Beeson’s Lizzie Borden and Marie Antoinette in Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. Her affinity for new music has led to opportunities to work with some of the great composers of our century: She has created roles in Floyd’s Bilby’s Doll, Pasatieri’s Washington Square, Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas, and Bernstein’s A Quiet Place.

Although Greenawald’s repertoire comprises both the standard and the innovative, she (almost unintentionally) has built a reputation around her work in unconventional repertoire. “So much of it is luck,” she says, noting that attitudes about viable repertoire have changed over the course of her career: “I think opera companies in the last 20 years have been more willing to take chances on American works,” she says. “Why not do American?”

Why not indeed—especially when American opera comprises such a rich variety of styles and stories? Tenor Jerry Hadley, an avid spokesman for music of his country, described it as a multicolored fabric. “All our music has been imported; we’ve assimilated everything from African tribal rhythms to highly cultivated northern European art music,” he said in an interview with OPERA America last spring. He noted that Broadway has insinuated itself into our musical vernacular, as well: “If you start to compare American operas that were written in the 20s and 30s with Broadway shows being written at the same time, you find there’s not a hell of a lot of difference.” As more and more pieces are created—or rediscovered— there is a growing demand for singers with a facility for new music.

Does Greenawald ever worry that her renown in new works is a mixed blessing? Not really. “Maybe I am pigeonholed, but this is a fine century to be pigeonholed in!” She notes that being seen as an American-music specialist or a new-music specialist shouldn’t affect a singer’s career trajectory: “If you’re good, if you prove yourself in one arena, other arenas will open themselves up to you.” Her repertoire, which spans centuries and circles the globe, is ample evidence of that.

In fact, performing in works outside of the “Top 10” can allow artists to make a splash in a way that they might not in a Bohème or Butterfly. Soprano Margaret Lloyd says, “I love the fact that most people who come to see [a new piece] won’t compare me to other people. It leaves room for my own interpretation.” She has had a busy year, with a workshop performance of Lee Hoiby’s new setting of Romeo and Juliet at OPERA America’s 1999 annual conference, a New York Philharmonic debut, and roles in the world premiere of Central Park, a trilogy of one-acts co-commissioned by Glimmerglass Opera, New York City Opera, and WNET’s Great Performances.

Like many of her colleagues, Lloyd relishes the opportunity to establish collaborative relationships with composers. (Greenawald fondly remembers a conversation in which Leonard Bernstein asked, “So how high do you want to sing?”) Central Park provided a welcome opportunity for Lloyd to take on her second project with composer Michael Torke, and this fall she had the opportunity to present another Torke premiere: Four Seasons, part of Disney’s Millennium Symphonies project. Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who will appear in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, an upcoming San Francisco Opera commission, is actively creating her own opportunities to work with composers. She has commissioned pieces from a number of up-and-coming composers, including Heggie. This spring, Lloyd will sing in two new works at Houston Grand Opera: Mark Adamo’s Little Women and the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree. “It’s a great honor—Carlisle Floyd is one of the biggest names in American opera,” she says. The South Carolina-born composer is probably best-known for Susannah, which will be performed by no less than eight American opera companies, as well as at least one international company, in the 1999-2000 season. His operatic version of Of Mice And Men has also been revived often: It was seen in five productions across the US in the 1998-99 season.

Floyd may be one of the biggest names in American opera, but the field is growing gloriously crowded. A quick glance at OPERA America’s 1999-2000 Season Schedule of Performances shows that these are exciting times for our art form. No fewer than 17 brand-new North American works will enter the repertoire this season—strong evidence that opera companies are ready and willing to mix tradition and innovation.

William Bolcom’s A View From The Bridge, which premiered at Lyric Opera of Chicago on October 10, enjoyed the media spotlight with Bruce Weber’s New York Times series, entitled “The Birth of an Opera.” Nine articles, which ran from August through November, focused on many of the issues and personalities involved in the creation of the new work. (The series is available on The New York Times web site: Another event drawing national attention is the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming premiere of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. The opera boasts a stellar cast, including Dawn Upshaw, Susan Graham, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Jerry Hadley, Mark Baker, Dwayne Croft, and Richard Paul Fink. Hadley is passionate about performing North American works. “It makes me a better artist,” he said. “For me personally, variety is the thing that fuels the fire.” His career has embraced everything from roles in “standard” Mozart and Puccini works to popular American pieces like Candide, Susannah, and West Side Story. He is also well-known for his portrayal of Tom Rakewell in The Rake’s Progress. (Though many might not identify Stravinsky’s neoclassical masterpiece as “American,” it’s worth noting that Stravinsky became an American citizen several years before its composition.)

As singers, companies, and audiences continue to embrace works by our compatriots, American opera is becoming less of a novelty. From 1994-1999, the number of US productions of works like Porgy and Bess, Susannah, The Ballad of Baby Doe, The Rake’s Progress, and Of Mice and Men were comparable to those for standard works like La Fille du régiment, Die Entfu¨hrung aus dem Serail, Andrea Chénier, Der Rosenkavalier, Macbeth, Fidelio, and Manon. Although the subsequent productions don’t attract the same attention as a world premiere, they are exciting indicators that a piece is taking its place in the c
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