Keith Cerny
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A Tsunami of North American Opera

In the past 30 years interest in North American Opera has skyrocketed. Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny—who is riding the wave with three world premieres in 2015—discusses this relatively recent trend.

published Sunday, July 5, 2015


Dallas — As most readers already know, The Dallas Opera is presenting three world premieres in calendar 2015 (Joby Talbot’s Everest, which premiered to enormous critical acclaim last January; Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott in October; and Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus in December). All of us at TDO are extremely proud of the company’s commitment to the continued development and expansion of the operatic art form. While TDO has taken a particularly active leadership role this year in presenting three world premieres, it is clear that North American Opera has never been more vibrant. OPERA America, the national service organization for opera, has played a major part in this development, by awarding nearly $13 million over the past 30 years to professional company members in support of new American operas. Thanks in part to a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, OPERA America now maintains a comprehensive database of these works going all the way back to 1895. (By way of disclosure, I should note that I am on the Board of OPERA America, and Chair the Strategy Committee).

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
The Dallas Opera's world premiere of Everest in February 2015

If you examine the evolution of American opera from an historical perspective—that is, up until around 25 years ago, North American operas were a small part of the programming in American and Canadian opera companies. Even as recently as the early 1980s, there were three seasons where only four North American operas were presented across the U.S. and Canada (1981, 1983, and 1984). At this point in their history, North American opera companies were very much a showcase for operas that originated in Europe, typically written in the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. I believe that this strong emphasis on mainstream operas in the repertoire, at the expense of more contemporary works for their time, was one of the drivers of declining ticket sales and some loss of interest in the field. This negative trend was exacerbated once opera companies began remounting the same productions of traditional favorites over and over again—whether with their own sets and costumes, or rented from a sister organization. This was a well-meaning effort to reduce costs by decreasing the frequency of commissioning new productions, but it wound up having a negative impact as well. No matter how extraordinary the cast, there is only so much audience interest in seeing the same production of a particular opera three, four, or even five times over a 25-year period.

The development of true North American repertoire, commissioned and presented by opera companies from the very largest to the most modest, has been one of the unqualified successes in the field. However, this development is relatively recent. In 1990, there were a mere seven North American operas performed nationally (listing courtesy of OPERA America):

  • December 18, 1990: Assassins (Stephen Sondheim), Playwrights Horizons, New York
  • June 17, 1990: The Balcony (Robert DiDomenica / Jean Genet), Opera Company of Boston
  • June 17, 1990: The Outcast (Noa Ain), Opera Ebony, New York
  • May 25, 1990: Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus (Libby Larsen), The Minnesota Opera
  • April 29, 1990: Hydrogen Jukebox (Philip Glass / Allen Ginsberg), Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina
  • April 4, 1990: Casino Paradise (William Bolcom / Arnold Weinstein), American Music Theater Festival, Philadelphia
  • February 23, 1990: Tornrak (John Metcalf), Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta, Canada

Although it may appear arbitrary, the year 1990 is quite reflective of that period. One year before, in 1989, there were nine North American operas (including Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appetit!, which TDO presented in 2013). In 1988, there were just seven North American operas, including the world premiere of Dominick Argento’s The Aspern Papers in Dallas. In 1987, there were a total of seven North American operas, including the world premiere of John Adams’ iconic Nixon in China at Houston Grand Opera—for my taste, one of the most influential operas of the last three decades.

Fast-forward 25 years to calendar 2015, and there are an astonishing 38 North American operas being presented across the region. In addition to the three world premieres in Dallas, there are 35 more operas—made in North America—covering an enormous range of topics, from historical figures (Oscar Wilde in the opera Oscar at Opera Philadelphia, Andy Warhol in an opera at Opera Philadelphia), historical novels (Cold Mountain at Santa Fe), political thrillers (The Manchurian Candidate at Minnesota Opera), works inspired from Greek myths (Hercules vs. Vampires at Los Angeles Opera), and even fairy tales (The True Story of the Three Little Pigs at Opera Theater Summerfest). One of the most intriguing concepts in this year’s season is an opera about Supreme Court justices (Scalia/Ginsburg) at the Castleton Festival. Next year the Minnesota Opera will premiere an important opera based on the horror genre (The Shining). These operas in 2015 include a wide range of compositional styles, including traditional opera styles, cabaret, Klezmer, jazz, and Mariachi. Even more encouraging, premieres are being led by a diverse mix of companies, from the very largest (San Francisco Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago) to high-quality companies with dramatically smaller budgets (e.g. Amazing Grace at Opera Parallèle, the artistic home of TDO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Nicole Paiement).

Photo: Michal Daniel
The Manchurian Candidate at Minnesota Opera

In many—maybe even most—ways, this cornucopia of North American Opera is excellent news for the industry as a whole, especially since many of these 38 operas being presented in 2015 are world premieres, or revisions to recent premieres. However, as in the case of all trends, there are winners and losers. On the positive side, this virtual tsunami of new work demolishes any argument (which you still regularly hear) that opera is merely a “dead” art form. In fact, it has become increasingly clear that the reverse is true, although since ticket sales nationally now account for only 30 percent of the budget of a typical large opera company, the financial realities of modern-day opera production are unquestionably difficult. The intensity of global interest in North American opera has created enormous opportunities for composers and librettists, and new operas mean new productions, opening up regular opportunities for a new generation of set, costume, lighting and projection designers to work their magic. As I have written before, the process of commissioning, or bringing a revised work to the stage, keeps opera companies working at the “top of their game.” Most importantly, this pace of activity brings the field back to its roots as a source of artistic innovation. In the early years of the opera field in 17th century Italy, many operas premiered each year. Of these, most have been long since forgotten, and only a handful of the best survived, but this was considered the natural result of intense creative competition and natural attrition.

So in this vibrant era of Northern America opera, who—if anyone—loses? I often feel a twinge of sympathy for composers, who may labor for two to three years on a new work, only to see it performed a handful of times and then vanish. (On the other hand, the sheer volume of activity gives many more composers a chance to see their work performed onstage in the first place.) Fortunately for composers, most rely now on sophisticated music software to save time in composing, orchestration, and part preparation. This enables them to move more quickly and competitively from one project to the next, making improvements and revisions as they go.

However, there is another drawback of the current environment I should mention: it is much more difficult for opera companies to find co-producers, because almost every company has multiple projects in preparation—not only for the current season, but future ones as well. When Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick premiered in Dallas in 2010, TDO had four other co-producers in the U.S., Canada and Australia. For the premiere of Heggie’s next full-length opera, Great Scott, we have just one so far (Thank you, San Diego Opera!). For all of its strengths as a musical and dramatic work, Joby Talbot’s and Gene Scheer’s Everest was produced on its own by TDO earlier this year. This doesn’t mean that other companies won’t pick it up, and several have expressed serious interest. It is typical of the trend, though, in that many companies prefer to rent new productions after the premiere, rather than risk being a full creative and financial partner from the outset.

In conclusion, the sheer volume of North American Opera makes for a very vibrant time in the opera field, and I have every reason to believe that 2016 will be as active as 2015. Because of the large amount of resources required to commission and produce a new opera, there is great pressure on General Directors, composers, and librettists to hit a “hole in one” every time, and produce an opera of lasting quality that is revived multiple times. However, that is simply not realistic, and we need a certain degree of patience from our audiences, boards and donors.

If you look across the OPERA America database, almost every year going back for decades sees the premiere of an opera of importance (one that has stood the test of time) mixed in with more modest successes, and in some cases, outright failures. Ultimately, we benefit as a field from regular and consistent experimentation, rather than from creativity hamstrung by excessive caution. The sheer volume of North American works also instills a certain degree of humility in General Directors and other decision makers in our field. Much as I would like to, I can’t imagine trying to see 38 North American operas in a single season! In the not-so-distant past, when there were only four to six North American Opera across the U.S. and Canada each year, it was possible to keep close tabs on them all, and probably see most of them in person. Now, that it is much too demanding for a General Director who is also leading his or her own organization. Just as most of us have never seen all of Verdi’s and Mozart’s operas in live performance, let alone all of Handel’s, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that there aren’t enough hours in the day (or frequent flier miles) to make ourselves hands-on experts on every modern composer, style and idiom. Rather than causing me concern, this observation merely validates the richness and variety of the operatic art form over the course of its remarkable 400-year history.


◊ 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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A Tsunami of North American Opera
In the past 30 years interest in North American Opera has skyrocketed. Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny—who is riding the wave with three world premieres in 2015—discusses this relatively recent trend.
by Keith Cerny

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