Jonathan Williams in a previous production of <em>Death and the Powers</em>
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Opera Without Borders

In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny weighs the implications of an important experiment with the upcoming Death and the Powers.

published Sunday, January 5, 2014


Dallas — Over the past 15 years, a major change has occurred in American opera.  For many previous decades, most leading opera companies in the U.S., including The Dallas Opera, focused the bulk of their energies on producing top quality productions of well-established operas. While The Dallas Opera commissioned several major works (Tobias Picker’s Thérèse Raquin, for one) over a 25-year period—recent examples include Jake Heggie’s and Gene Scheer’s spectacularly successful opera Moby-Dick, and the revival of Dominick Argento’s exquisite rendition of a Henry James classic: The Aspern Papers—the pace of new commissions in Dallas and at opera companies throughout the U.S. was modest, at best. One notable exception was Houston Grand Opera, which under the leadership of General Director David Gockley commissioned a remarkable stream of world premieres (John Adams’s Nixon in China and Mark Adamo’s Little Women, to name a few), as an integral part of the company’s strategy.

Fast forward 15 years and, today, opera companies of all sizes—from prestigious Level 1 companies such as The Dallas Opera to small, high quality Level 4 companies—are commissioning, adapting, and performing new works. TDO’s conductor for our upcoming production of Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers, Maestra Nicole Paiement, co-founder of Opera Parallèle (originally Ensemble Parallèle) is one of these innovative programmers. The company she leads has only a modest budget, yet has presented a wide range of contemporary opera, even as it commissioned and revived chamber orchestrations of important contemporary operas for smaller ensembles (a reduced orchestration of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck being a personal favorite). Closer to home, The Dallas Opera over the last several years has announced important commissions with Jake Heggie, Joby Talbot and Mark Adamo as core elements of its new artistic strategy. Additional works by prominent opera composers are “in the discussion phase” and could command center stage at the Dallas Opera within the next four to five years.

Photo: Jill Steinberg
 A previous production of Death and the Powers

While it bodes well for the operatic art form that there is now so much interest in new work, there remains a fundamental “distribution” problem: how to expose audiences in multiple markets to a new work—rather an audience confined to the site of the world premiere. Some works, such as Moby-Dick, are originally co-produced by a consortium of opera companies (five, in this particular case), but frequently, it is difficult for new works to secure wide distribution. This situation is cause for concern among opera aficionados, composers and producers. In his memorable 2010 keynote address to Opera America, the late composer Daniel Catán noted, “Developing a great product is essential. But if the distribution of it works against it, it will go down the drain, regardless of how good it was. Our distribution model is a serial killer and needs serious rehabilitation.”

One of Mr. Catán’s points was that the dissemination of new work is fundamentally a serial process—meaning, that an opera company commissions a work, possibly as part of a consortium. A General Director attending the premiere may be very impressed, but typically he or she does not have a “slot” available to program the new work in his or her own market for several years, which greatly delays the spread of new operas. As Mr. Catán underscored in his keynote, a single failure in one market, even after a successful premiere, reduces the likelihood that the work will be picked up elsewhere, and that failure might be due to factors that have nothing to do with the merits (or demerits) of the work.

The distribution model arguably worked much better in the 19th and early 20th century, and Mr. Catán described how a single successful opera could be picked up rapidly all over the world. As an example, he admired how quickly Verdi’s Il Trovatore was performed in multiple markets following its Rome premiere in January, 1853. Within three years, the opera had 229 separate productions worldwide (not just performances)! In the city of Naples during those three years, there were 11 productions in six theaters for a grand total of 190 performances. By contrast, a major new American work, even with multiple co-producers, might only have 30 or so performances over a four- or five-year period.

Back at the ranch, The Dallas Opera is proud to present Death and the Powers to North Texas (with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music)—only the fourth production, worldwide, since the opera’s remarkable 2010 Monte Carlo premiere. In addition, on Feb. 16, 2014, The Dallas Opera in partnership with MIT will conduct a bold new opera experiment that begins to tackle the issue Daniel Catán raised so compellingly.  Co-produced by Tod Machover, The Dallas Opera, and company friend and donor Bob Ellis, the company will be simulcasting the final Dallas Opera performance of Death and the Powers to 8-10 venues in the U.S. and Europe. These locations include science museums such as the Perot Museum of Nature and Science here in Dallas; the Opera America Center in New York; universities, conservatories, and opera training programs, and even an art museum.  With a combined reach of several thousand patrons and opinion leaders spanning five time zones, TDO is collaborating with local venue leaders to promote the work to audiences and the media. Hopefully, this will accelerate the uptake of this powerful and genre-stretching work by performing arts institutions in cities across the world (including Latin America).

This event will be significant for a second reason, in that the opera will have an unprecedented interactive element, delivered through an iPhone application developed by the composer’s team at the MIT Media Lab. Patrons at the satellite sites will be able to receive secondary audio, video and multimedia on their remote phones and devices, carefully choreographed with the live performance in Dallas. In addition, these sites will also be able to influence the visual look of the computer-controlled Moody Chandelier in the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House during the performance in Dallas—the first time a simulcast has been performed with a remote interactive feature. One important outcome of this approach will be to draw all of the disparate audiences closer to the live, real-time performance in Dallas.

From an audience development point of view, producing a simulcast to share the distribution of a new work is extremely cost effective. The total cost over the remote sites is roughly equal to the cost of one of TDO’s AT&T Stadium simulcasts, and we are very fortunate to have two California-based underwriters who have generously supported this project. Designing the network of sites, including all of the required satellite and fiber transmission, receiving antennas, and local WiFi to support the app, has been a labor-intensive exercise, but it has allowed TDO and MIT to achieve a level of distribution unimaginable a few years ago for companies that lack the resources of the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcasts.

In closing, I would like to thank our co-Executive Producers, Tod Machover, Bob Ellis and the MIT Media Lab, whose creativity, leadership, and technical knowledge will make this once-improbable dream possible.  We also appreciate the support of our union partners, the American Federation of Musicians, the American Guild of Musical Artists, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. And, in memory of Daniel Catán, who died unexpectedly at the peak of his career, we sincerely hope that this first experiment in interactive opera distribution helps to identify and shape exciting new options for sharing the remarkable new operas now being created—on a world stage—for people anywhere and everywhere.

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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Opera Without Borders
In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny weighs the implications of an important experiment with the upcoming Death and the Powers.
by Keith Cerny

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