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Article Published: 18 Apr 2022

Reflections from the New Works Forum

What is the measure of a new opera’s success? For many opera creators and producers, it’s the work’s ability to bring about societal good — by fulfilling community needs, addressing critical social issues, and giving voice to historically marginalized groups. These topics were at the heart of this year’s New Works Forum, OPERA America’s annual gathering of the new works community, which brought together nearly 250 attendees for virtual conversations in January.  

The forum’s panel discussions all looked at “where we can find a bridge between equitable practices and new works,” noted Rebekah Diaz, director of community engagement and IDEA initiatives at Pittsburgh Opera and one of the forum’s moderators. Indeed, many panelists spoke about how to achieve a more equitable and inclusive art form by breaking down gatekeeping among producers, providing platforms for diverse artistic voices, and humbly approaching our community members to better understand them, among other practices.  

What follows are reflections from panelists that emerged during three of the forum’s sessions — thought-provoking statements that questioned opera’s status quo while also spotlighting the art form’s inherent power to speak to contemporary issues.  

The New Works Forum is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts. 

Building Community Trust by Embracing New Repertoire 

The forum included a panel on how new work can be a catalyst for initiating authentic connection and trust in our communities. Several participants reflected on the challenges of establishing those community connections. 

“We have to tell good stories, but we also have to create good music. When we want to convince the community to come to us, we better give them something of quality. Just because we have a dialogue with the community, that’s not going to work. What we offer has to be compelling on a craft level.” —Christina Scheppelman, general director, Seattle Opera  

“When we approach new works from a point of risk, we automatically don’t put our full resources behind them. Until a company is bold and brave enough to say, ‘I’m going to do this work and put my full resources behind it,’ we sell ourselves short, when we start to think about money before art.” —Kenneth Kellogg, bass  

“While we are looking to build our communities, we also have to reconcile the fact that some communities will not be receptive to this new work. ... Some of us are further along in cutting our ties with communities that are not going to be receptive. But we move the needle forward [with new works] because we know that this is what we have to do, and that these are stories that need to be told, these are voices that have to be heard.”—Afton Battle, general director, Fort Worth Opera 

Building a Bigger Tent for Artists and Creators 

Another panel brought together artists and creators who have worked in multiple disciplines and musical idioms to consider how opera can break down barriers that prohibit cross-genre collaboration within the industry. 

“Academia has given opportunities to people of color, but academics have also been gatekeepers. In my works, I refuse to give White intellectuals ownership of the avant-garde, because I feel like they have taken ownership of this idea of experimentation. And they want a person who looks like me to tell a certain type of story.” —J. Mae Barizo, librettist; OPERA America IDEA Opera Resident Artist  

“When I’m creating, I’m guided by my muses, and I think that’s a sacred right as an artist — to create what you are being called to create and not have that dictated by anything external. ... And so my work might be approachable for some and not for others, but that’s nothing new, living in the world in this skin and this body.” —Tamar-kali, composer; OPERA America IDEA Opera Resident Artist

Detonating the Opera Box 

“Detonating the Opera Box” offered a discussion of how artists and producers can break down the art form’s elitist constructs and present art that resonates with communities. 

“Opera has so long been tethered to this notion of access and the patron system. Ultimately, we need to be digesting the realities of the communities we say we want to reach. We need to ask those communities questions, to create space for people to speak to their experience without assumption [and] without a fear of rejection.” —Ras Dia, co-director, Frederick R. Koch Foundation’s Townhouse Series; assistant producer, Little Island  

“The heart of [being a producer] is really around curatorial listening. As curators and presenters, we hold the keys to the door, but we don’t hold the keys to culture. We are in service to our community — and to be in service we have to reflect what’s happening in our community, what that community needs.” —David Howse, vice president, Emerson College; executive director, ArtsEmerson 

This article was published in the Spring 2022 issue of Opera America Magazine.