2015-16 marks the fifth season in a row in which Tulsa Opera includes an American opera in its mainstage programming. This is not as rare an occurrence as it was even ten years ago, but it’s still far from the norm at regional American companies. Although companies like the Minnesota Opera, the Florentine, Nashville Opera, and several others have an impressive record of producing American works, often in world premieres, many still consider American opera the territory of major international companies like San Francisco, Santa Fe and Houston. (On a side note, the Met’s 2015-16 season includes no American work, and with the exception of Lulu (1937) nothing more recent than Puccini.)
In Tulsa I have been fortunate to be supported by a Board and staff who recognize the vitality of American opera and have backed my programming choices starting with Dead Man Walking in 2012. There are many other visionary opera boards and executives at regional companies who chose to lead rather than follow with their programming. Still, and paradoxically, American opera is a hard sell in America. New works of American grand opera (as opposed to chamber opera) generally cost more to produce, are labor-intensive for Production and Marketing, and don’t bring in the ticket revenue that Puccini often -though not always- does.
In light of those difficulties, it is understandable that even some of the most courageous opera executives and Boards occasionally get cold feet when they look at the numbers. As the Artistic Director of a mid-size regional opera company myself, I deal every day with questions of how to balance artistic vision with financial reality; the investment in the future with the necessity of today; the need to bring in new audiences with the need to hold on to long-time patrons. The question of how American opera fits into the company’s present and future is often the topic of discussion with patrons, donors, Board members and colleagues.
Every single day I ask myself if I am wrong to want to include American or other contemporary opera in every Tulsa Opera mainstage season, especially as I am limited not only by finances and the availability of physical productions, but also but my own sense of which works are relevant and can appeal to my audience. After several years of preoccupation with both the artistic and business/financial implications of the subject, I have been able to put into words what it is that makes me so convinced that American opera is an essential part of a regional American company’s season. I am sharing those here with you and look forward to your feedback and comments.
Contemporary opera is at this point mostly an American affair. Not only are there more new operas being written in the US than in any other country in the world, but the vast majority of these new operas are written with mainstream audiences in mind. Opera is now a US native art. It draws on the nation’s history, literature and culture, and speaks in recognizably American musical terms about the American experience. American composers are showing the way to the future of opera. Shouldn’t we “Buy American” once a year?
- We can’t make the argument that opera is alive if the most recent work in our season is 150 years old. There has been a lot of discussion in media and blogs in recent years about whether “opera is dying.” After a few decades of relatively easy wins during which La Boheme paid the bills, the warhorses are no longer the guarantee they used to be. At the same time, it’s becoming more and more difficult to explain why anyone should go to the opera, or donate to it. In this discussion I like to be able to show proof that opera is not a museum item, but a vital proposition in contemporary culture. That proof is that artists want to create it and people come to see it.
- Some people will never buy a ticket to a 150-year old show sung in a foreign language. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t come to the opera. Verdi is one of my favorite composers, and I often struggle to understand why some people just aren’t interested in a great production of La Traviata, or A Masked Ball. Then I remember that recent generations of Americans have grown up without a love and understanding for the legacy arts. Opera for them is that old Italian stuff that grandma likes. Powerful and entertaining shows about familiar subject matter, told in great music, and sung in their own language will bring them in. They do bring them in. Slowly.
- Contemporary American opera typically is powerful drama. Opera is many things, but above all, it is theater. That is the attribute that best qualifies it to compete in today’s culture, which has been defined by the dominant influence of cinema. Theater was very different two hundred years ago. Bellini’s music is sublime, but his operas are not great theater today. When stage directors bravely try to bring modern dramatic sensibilities to the works of Verdi, Donizetti, or Gounod, results are often mixed. Contemporary operas are written for movie-watching audiences by movie-watching composers, and offer an inherently visceral, fast-paced opera experience which debunks the stereotype of voluptuous ladies in horned helmets shouting from the footlights.
- Placing contemporary works and classics side by side in a season is in itself a dynamic artistic proposition. Works of art, including operas, do not only relate to the audience. They also relate to one another. All operas were new at one time, and the best of them were bold and controversial when they were new. After hearing a new work we always end up discussing its meaning and value. That discussion deepens our understanding not only of the work in question, but of the art form as a whole. The effort to understand the new inevitably casts new light on the old.
- The core audience is not the only audience. Resistance to contemporary programming often comes from long-time, valued patrons. These are people who have bought tickets and made donations for years. Many of them are part of the 20% that provides 80% of the revenue, and most of them genuinely care for the company. We should listen to them, respect them, give them what they want as often as possible, thank them profusely, and keep them engaged. However, if we focus on serving those patrons only, we won’t be around long. Remember Blockbuster? They went out of business while striving to serve their core customers.
- Artists are as important to an arts organization as donors and ticket buyers. It is true that without donations and ticket income we won’t have opera companies. It is also true that without vibrant artistic propositions opera companies won’t be worth having. The driving force behind art is the artist’s vision and desire to create. Innovative programming is exciting to artists, and engaged and excited artists make better art and serve communities better.
- Contact with the arts should be a transformation. Not a transaction. There’s a reason arts organizations are non-profits. Long time ago it was decided that art is necessary in our communities and should exist, although it can’t always compete in the free market. In exchange for the economic advantage that society gave us, it expects us to enlighten, inspire, educate, challenge, innovate, experiment, and make transformative experiences available to our communities. Although you can buy a ticket to an opera, it would be misunderstanding the function of art to view the opera house as a luxury tunes store, which should only stock what sells.