At Critics’ Webinar, Opera Creators Voice Hope For New Works

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PERSPECTIVE – In the last decade or so, the number of new operatic works has skyrocketed. Heidi Waleson, opera critic for the Wall Street Journal, notes that she reviewed 18 new works during all of the 1980s, but says that number jumped to 39 in 2016 alone.

Along with a boost in quantity has come other changes. More operas are written by women and people of color, and they often deal with rawer and more socially conscious subjects like the traumatic after-effects of sexual assault.  

Music critic Heici Waleson, at right, hosted MCANA webinar partipants clockwise from top left: Critic Alex Ross, composer Ellen Reid, librettist Royce Vavrek, librettist and director Tazewell Thompson, and producer-director Kristin Marting.

“So, clearly, new work is no longer just an occasional prestige project that you do once, get the credit for it and move on,” said Waleson, the moderator of a webinar titled New Opera Creators Consider the Future, the first such session organized by the Music Critics Association of North America.

“New work has become really integral to the mission of quite a few opera companies,” Waleson said during the 75-minute Zoom event, which remains available for viewing: Copy passcode m4oRB.&i and click here.

Taking part were three recipients of the Music Critics Association of North America’s Best New Opera Award: composer Ellen Reid, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Music for p r i s m; Tazewell Thompson, librettist (with composer Jeanine Tesori) for Blue and director of opera studies at the Manhattan School of Music; and Royce Vavrek, librettist (with composer Missy Mazzoli) for Breaking the Waves and (with composer) Du Yun for Angel’s Bone.

They were joined by Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, and Kristin Marting, a producer and director who is co-founder and artistic director of New York’s HERE Art Center and co-founder and co-artistic director of the annual Prototype Festival, which has been a key catalyst in developing new work.

Given the devastating economic, creative, and social impact that COVID-19 has had on the arts, it was not surprising that the pandemic dominated much of the conversation. The composer and librettists noted that most previously scheduled premieres and performances of their works had to be postponed during the shutdown, in some cases indefinitely.

But meanwhile, they found themselves working on digital and other projects that they would never have envisioned otherwise. Reid, for example, created a GPS-enabled SOUND WALK in which participants use a free app to trigger musical “cells” or passages as they traverse Central Park. Each walk creates a different aural experience as participants listen to music recorded by the New York Philharmonic, Young People’s Chorus of New York, and the jazz group Poole and the Gang. The project is being repeated in other cities across the U.S., including Philadelphia and Virginia Beach, Va.    

Marting collaborated with composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Rob Handel on what they billed as the “world’s first Zoom opera.” The 15-minute work, titled All Decisions Will Be Made by Consensus (image below), was performed live on Zoom on April 25, 2020. “Finding something that spoke to the moment was really important to us,” Marting said. “What more important time for artists to be in dialogue with the public than at a time like this. That was the urgency that we felt.”

During this COVID-induced break from in-person performances, opera companies have learned that they can communicate with audiences in ways that weren’t possible before. The 2021 Prototype Festival in January, and available through April for viewing, reached six continents and 65 countries – something that was unprecedented. Moving ahead, Marting believes opera companies will continue to build on these experiences and supplement their stage productions with online offerings that reach out to people who either can’t or choose not to attend in person.

But what has become clear as the coronavirus passes the one-year mark is that people have tired of online arts presentations and are hungry for live performances. “They really want that experience of coming together as a group – a communal way of sitting together and their hearts beating as one,” Thompson said. “When we see the conductor come into the pit and the curtain go up, it is such an exhilarating feeling.”

As the opera world begins to emerge from its imposed hibernation, a big question is whether new opera will continue to play the kind of integral role that it has in recent years. For decades, critics and others in the field have pleaded for more attention to living composers, but too often bursts of attention to the new have faded back to the status quo. “Now something has shifted,” Ross said. He suggested that the innovation that was thrust onto companies by the pandemic and, perhaps more important, rising demands for equality may have forced a permanent change.

[Mazzoli and Vavrek’s Breaking the Waves, shown here in the Scottish Opera production, was a victim of COVID when the Houston Opera canceled its April 2021 performances. The company will announce a new season in May.]

While the opera world has been dealing with the coronavirus, it has also been confronting its own past in light of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other movements that challenge organizations to make diversity and inclusion an everyday way of doing business. For nearly its entire history, the opera world has presented work dominated by male composers of European descent. “Hopefully, this time, it will be different,” Ross said. “There is an argument that is penetrating: If your repertory continues to be based so completely in the past, then it will be founded on a racist, misogynist, colonialist, imperialist system, and that is what you will be carrying. And that has gotten people’s attention.”

The Metropolitan Opera’s 21-22 season will open with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” had is 2019 world premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. (metopera.org)

Vavrek noted that the Metropolitan Opera has scheduled house premieres of three contemporary operas in 2021-22, the most new works to debut there in one season since 1928-29. “If that house, which has not done that much new work, can double or triple or quadruple down, then maybe there’s reason to be hopeful,” he said. Waleson pointed out that Michigan Opera Theatre’s 2021-22 schedule includes the company premiere of Blue and a revival of Anthony Davis’ 1986 opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.

“Blue,” with a libretto by Thompson, will be at Michigan Opera Theatre September 11-12, conducted by Daniela Candillari and directed by Kaneza Schaal.

In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, though, Thompson expressed skepticism about how far most opera companies will go with contemporary opera. He cited the pressure to lure audiences back. “I think if I were in their shoes as a producer,” he said, “I’d be afraid at thismoment.”

But he also ofered a bright forecast for the futrue of new opera, especially in light of how people have been “wokened” by Black Lives Matter, the January attack on the U.S. Capitol, and other recent socio-political events. “I think people want to connect,” Thompson said. “They want to feel politically alive and socially alive in what is going on in the world, what is happening in their neighborhoods. I feel very optimistic that new operas will happen and companies will want to produce them.”

Here are a few other takeaways from the webinar:

Possibility of a coronavirus-themed opera: “I’m sure there is somebody probably working on that,” Vavrek said, but he added that it’s not something that inspires him or any of his collaborators. Ross noted that there were few if any notable musical works written in the aftermath of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

The importance of commissioning consortiums: In past decades, operas were often debuted with much fanfare and then promptly forgotten. Companies were eager to present a world premiere but were not so interested in being the second or third presenter of an opera. That is changing today, with many operas commissioned by a consortium of companies. “We as creators are taking it upon ourselves to build the consortiums,” Vavrek said. “In Europe and in the States, we have had to be very proactive, or else you do risk an opera premiering and never being heard again.”

Reid’s award-winning 2018 opera “Prism,” with a libretto by Roxie Perkins, was first performed in Los Angeles, received its New York premiere at the Protoype Festival, and had its international debut in São Paulo in 2019.

Beth Morrison Projects has put together production tours of new works that have helped boost exposure. As a result of these efforts, works like p r i s m and Angel’s Bone have had a small yet significant number of performances. “Now, there is a sense that we have this little repertory of recent American operas that are in circulation, and this is a very healthy development,” Ross said.

Subject matter that is inappropriate for opera: “I think the sky is the limit,” Thompson said. “It depends on our composers and our librettists and how they decide to approach a subject. There is no limitation as to what the imagination can tell us.”

Comedy in contemporary opera: “I think after this moment,” Reid said, “everyone is going to need some comedy.”