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Article Published: 31 Oct 2014

National Opera Week and the State of the Field

Dear Opera Colleagues,

National Opera Week 2014 has been a great success, with 150 events offered by nearly 200 organizations in 40 states. From a social media preview night in Minnesota to Joyce DiDonato’s singing of The Star-Spangled Banner before Game 7 of the World Series, opera artists and organizations have worked together to demonstrate the excitement, variety and accessibility of the art form. Over recent months, companies have navigated numerous obstacles to bring exciting performances by outstanding artists to appreciative audiences.

Requests for statements about the health of opera are frequent and there is no simple response. Artistically, the field has never been more vibrant. In terms of audiences, companies are implementing new strategies to build attendance at the same time that public events have demonstrated a tremendous interest in the art form. A number of companies are still struggling under the weight of deficits that accumulated through the years of the Great Recession, while all companies are seeking ways to reduce expenses. This report, the second in a series that began in May, provides highlights of recent news from the field."

A sigh of relief echoed across the country in August when the Metropolitan Opera reached agreements with its unions that averted the cancellation of performances. San Francisco Opera, too, announced a new contract with members of its orchestra. Regrettably, companies in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Sacramento and other cities have suspended performances while company leaders work to establish a new basis for sustainability. Florida Grand Opera also announced recently that it is facing very serious financial difficulties resulting from years of deficits accumulated since moving into the new Arsht Center. But crises receive more coverage than reports of the underlying progress of the art form and the industry. Without oversimplifying the challenges that must be addressed, opera’s vibrancy is not limited to National Opera Week.

The number and diversity of new works announced over recent months is truly remarkable and demonstrates opera’s vitality as a contemporary cultural expression. Even a partial listing proves that the dramatic increase in the creation and production of new work characteristic of the last 25 years continues unabated, redefining opera in contemporary American musical and theatrical terms.

  • American Lyric Theater is advancing a number of projects, including the co-production with Fort Worth Opera of JFK by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek, even as it prepares for a co-production premiere at Opera Saratoga this summer of The Long Walk by Jeremy Howard Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann.
  • American Opera Projects’ production of As One at BAM in September was the first opera by composer Laura Kaminsky, with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed.
  • The Dallas Opera announced its co-commission (with San Diego Opera) of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott, as well as plans for the current season premiere of Everest by Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer.
  • Houston Grand Opera extends its historic dedication to new work with Prince of Players, by the dean of American composers, Carlisle Floyd, along with another Jake Heggie commission, this time with Gene Scheer, of It’s a Wonderful Life.
  • Following its success with Christopher Cerrone’s Invisible Cities, performed in the Union Station in Los Angeles, The Industry will mount its second iteration of First Take, a biennial West Coast workshop of new American operas.
  • Jimmy López and Nilo Cruz have been commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago to create the opera Bel Canto, based on Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel.
  • Librettist Mark Campbell is associated with a trio of new works announced by Minnesota Opera that spans the next few seasons: The Manchurian Candidate (Kevin Puts), The Shining (Paul Moravec) and Dinner at Eight (William Bolcom).
  • Palm Beach Opera will produce its first-ever new work, Enemies, A Love Story, by Ben Moore and Nahma Sandrow. Cincinnati Opera’s first premiere in more than 50 years will be Ricky Ian Gordon and William M. Hoffmann’s Morning Star.
  • This summer, The Santa Fe Opera will open Cold Mountain, by Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer, in a co-production with Opera Philadelphia, which also premieres Charlie Parker’s Yardbird this season (Daniel Schnyder and Brigette A. Wimberly).

The growing American opera repertoire builds on a strong foundation of existing works, including Dead Man Walking (Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally), which was the highlight of last season at Madison Opera and will receive a new production this winter at Opera Parallèle, the Met’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer, and Opera Philadelphia’s performances of a revised version of Theodore Morrison and John Cox’s Oscar. Daniel Catán and Marcela Fuentes-Berain’s Florencia en el Amazonas will be performed by Nashville Opera, while Midwestern audiences will see The Flowering Tree (John Adams and Peter Sellars) in Omaha, Floyd’s Of Mice and Men in Tulsa, Silent Night (Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell) in Kansas City, and Emmeline (Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy) in St. Louis.

Artistic impact is measured by much more than just new works. San Francisco Opera’s season highlight will be a production of Berlioz’s monumental Les Troyens. Handel’s operas continue to receive attention with performances of Semele in Seattle, Rodelinda in Pittsburgh and Alcina in Toronto. Boston Lyric Opera mounts a production of Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová in the spring, following Opera Southwest’s noted production of the rare opera Amleto by Franco Faccio. Houston Grand Opera is preparing for the next installment of its exciting production of the Ring cycle, while audiences can enjoy the recording of Seattle Opera’s performance of the monumental work, just released on CD. Houston Grand Opera released a recording of its own of Ricky Ian Gordon and Leonard Foglia’s A Coffin in Egypt, starring the incomparable Frederica von Stade. In January, Florentine Opera will create a live recording of Floyd’s Wuthering Heights, following Grammy Awards for other recent recordings.

Partnerships are essential to build both artistic and civic impact. This season, Los Angeles Opera inaugurates a collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects that brings David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s Dog Days to the REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall immediately following performances as part of Fort Worth Opera’s 2015 Festival Season. In December, Des Moines Metro Opera collaborates with StageWest Theatre Company by offering performances of Heggie’s Three Decembers to raise money for World AIDS Day. Arizona Opera was the first opera company in the country to produce the acclaimed mariachi opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, in its opera house as the opening production on its season subscription, supported by the company’s dynamic partnership with Univision. In Cincinnati, 18 organizations collaborated on a citywide commemoration of World War I, which included Cincinnati Opera’s production of Silent Night. Vancouver Opera tackled the difficult subject of bullying with a stunning production of a new opera, Stickboy, by Neil Weisensel and Shane Koyczan, featuring animation by Giant Ant.

The success of opera and opera companies depends on the participation of an appreciative audience. Recent focus on the long-term decline in attendance draws attention to the good news reported from a number of companies.

  • Opera Theatre of Saint Louis noted an increase in both subscribers and first-time attenders; 26 percent of the households served in the last season were new to the opera company.
  • Lyric Opera of Chicago welcomed tens of thousands of first-time audience members who comprised nearly 24 percent of last season’s attendance.
  • Madison Opera returned to Garner Park for a record-setting summer concert that reached the equivalent of six percent of the city’s population.
  • San Francisco Opera offered another live transmission from the stage of the War Memorial Opera House to AT&T Park, which was attended by 26,000 people, bringing the total reach of this project to 223,000 since 2006.

Even as companies struggle to balance their budgets, they continue to invest in the long-term development of future audiences. Education programs remain a central element of companies’ service to communities outside the walls of theaters. The Dallas Opera and Palm Beach Opera received generous challenge grants ($2.5 million in Dallas and $500,000 in Palm Beach) to increase and sustain their work with teachers and students.

Balancing budgets requires increased contributed support. Fundraising goals were surpassed in Chicago, Houston and Santa Fe, among others. How wonderful that San Diego Opera raised over $2 million via Kickstarter in support of its new leadership and upcoming 50th anniversary season. The Dallas Opera achieved a second consecutive operating surplus following a financial crisis that resulted in the temporary reduction of mainstage productions, now being restored to five. The majority of companies reporting data through the Professional Opera Survey achieved operating surpluses in the most recent year, with a fuller report to come this winter.

Reports of success do not capture the tremendous dedication and generosity of staff members, board members and donors. No one reports that producing opera has become easier in recent years! The musical and theatrical scope of opera requires earned and contributed resources for which there is ever-greater competition. Inventiveness, determination and optimism are fundamental to our progress.


Marc A. Scorca