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To Promote the Expansion and Growth of the Art Form:
OPERA America and American Opera

Kelley Rourke
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Opera America Magazine12/1/2009

Editor's Note:
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When 17 opera companies came together to create OPERA America in 1970, they articulated a number of goals toward the advancement of the opera. However, it was not until the 1980s that field-wide momentum began to gather around new work.

In 1979, members voted to include a Composer-Librettist Showcase in conjunction with the organization’s annual conference. The first showcase took place in New Orleans in 1981. Fifty-two works were submitted for consideration; seven were chosen for concert presentation, followed by a discussion with composers, librettists and producers. A 144-page volume was published to accompany the showcase and seminar; in addition to a catalog of all the nominated works, it included essays on the state of contemporary opera production. The conversation had begun.

In the years that followed, OPERA America led several initiatives to promote the expansion and growth of the art form. Three landmark regranting programs lessened the financial risk and encouraged companies to add commissions or subsequent productions of American work to their seasons. The success of these programs eventually led to the creation of The Opera Fund, a growing permanent endowment dedicated to enhancing the quality, quantity and creativity of new opera and music-theater. The Opera Fund and its precursor programs have awarded nearly $11 million in funds to companies throughout North America in support of their efforts to expand and enrich the repertoire.

At the same time, the organization worked at many levels to increase opera professionals’ knowledge about commissioning, audience development and contemporary artists and their work. Creative artists including John Adams, Carlisle Floyd, Philip Glass, Osvaldo Golijov, Terrence McNally and Julie Taymor have delivered the Keynote Address at annual conferences; countless others have served on panels to discuss the state of the art. Publishers and composers have served on the board of directors.

In 2003, OPERA America hosted its first composer-librettist workshop. The organization’s move to New York has facilitated a regular series of professional development events under the umbrella Making Connections. The annual conference resumed a showcase event, the New Works Sampler, in 1999, and OPERA America regularly features performances of new work at important events such as the National Opera Trustee Recognition Program.

The landscape for American opera has changed tremendously since OPERA America’s founding; 75 percent of professional company members have produced an opera written in the past three decades. As we celebrate 40 years of expansion of the American repertory, we look forward to the decades of growth to come.

Opera for the 80s and Beyond

In December 1983, The Rockefeller Foundation provided OPERA America with $250,000 to hire a program director and cover the first grants for a new regranting program designed to support the development and production of new opera and music-theater.

While there was excitement about the availability of new funds, many remained skeptical. At the planning meeting for the new initiative, one of the participants commented that “there were 1,700 composers in Western Europe when Mozart was alive. I would like you to name me 10.” Asked about his plans for new operas in San Francisco, Terry McEwen said, “I would love to commission operas, but I can’t. I’d have to be able to afford a hundred failures for every three successes.”

Opera for the 80s and Beyond was a way of getting to a core concern, which was cost,” said Martin Kagan, who served as executive director of OPERA America from 1980-1990. “One of the complaints that companies had was that new works are very expensive. It became one of the priorities of OPERA America in its desire to lead the field — not just to respond its needs, but to be proactive.”

Opera for the 80s and Beyond (OFTEAB) employed several strategies to jump-start creativity in the field. David DiChiera, who was president of OPERA America at the time of the launch, wrote: “It was clear that Howard [Klein, of The Rockefeller Foundation] felt that some of the most creative work was taking place outside the opera world. I was absolutely excited that he agreed with me that it was necessary to effect a change within the opera field and not let opera companies be ‘end run’ by the creation of new music-theater within other fields, for that would serve to accentuate even more the atrophy current within our industry.”

The project, which grew out of discussions between Kagan, Klein and DiChiera, was presented to OPERA America members in December 1983, at a conference in New York City. A featured event at the conference was a concert called “New Directions in Opera,” which included works by Bob Telson, Meredith Monk, Anthony Davis and Robert Ashley. Member reactions to both the concert and OFTEAB were mixed, but in the end the membership accepted the initial grant from Rockefeller and the program went forward. Additional funding came from The National Endowment for the Arts, Pew Charitable Trusts, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Ford Foundation and The Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund.

“We had to admit that as a group, those of us who were responsible for the repertoire were not exposed to and aware of what was happening creatively outside our narrow world of opera,” wrote DiChiera.

Building awareness is a full-time job, and the grant included funds for the creation of a full-time project supervisor. Ben Krywosz joined the staff in April 1984, and began meeting with leaders of opera companies across the country. Many continued to cite cost concerns, but OFTEAB funds called their bluff.

“It became apparent that money was only part of the problem,” wrote Krywosz. “In fact, opera companies didn’t produce new works because it wasn’t their job. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) mission of most opera companies was to produce masterpieces of 18th- and 19th-century European opera. Creating new work was a completely different activity that was not particularly compatible with the production process of most opera companies.”

But Krywosz — “Johnny Operaseed” — persisted. The first grants were in the Exploration category. These modest grants paid travel expenses for general directors to familiarize themselves with new opera and music-theater being produced in venues across the United States. They took in a variety of works, from Akhnaten to Les Miserables, Nixon in China to X. They also attended conferences and colloquia focused on new works. Back in the OPERA America office, staff produced a newsletter that introduced members to artists such as Laurie Anderson and Roberto Sierra. “Giving grants was not the sole purpose of the program,” said Kagan. “It was to draw awareness to what was going on — in Kansas City, in Omaha, everywhere. Ben was there to provide information and guidance at all stages.”

In OFTEAB’s second year, the first Team Building and Development Grants were awarded. These underwrote initial meetings with the composer and librettist, as well as early workshops. Sometimes, as a result of the readings, the opera company decided a work was not appropriate for its audience. This was not considered a failure, but the outcome of a healthy process. The composer and librettist were free to take the work elsewhere; the producing company could continue to seek the production that would have the greatest chance of success.

Commissioning/Production Grants underwrote the costs of producing new works. While it was not necessary for a project to proceed through the Partnership and Development phases before requesting a Commissioning/Production Grant, OPERA A
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