The Rumors of Opera's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated (Pt. 1)

I first started ruminating on the idea for this post a couple of weeks ago when I was reading some glowing reviews for The Collaborative Works Festival in Chicago. The Collaborative Arts Institute was founded three years ago by three musicians: two of whom, Nicholas Phan and Shannon McGuiness, happen to be friends of mine, and so I have been eagerly following their progress. In only three seasons, the festival has collaborated with world class artists, presenting them in song recitals, and has created an organization which is not only artistically compelling, but also financially stable. All during a time in which a new press outlet or company head bemoans the death of opera and classical singing on a daily basis. The idea that two people I know, in spite of all the odds and the constant barrage of negative press about the "state of opera", managed to create something that makes a real artistic contribution from scratch got me wondering about just how many other companies and festivals featuring classical singing and opera had cropped up during this new millenium.

Surely it must only be a few. I mean, what has the bulk of the news been in the past five years in the opera world? New York City Opera closes, San Diego Opera comes within an inch of closing, and The Metropolitan Opera faces possible bankruptcy and a work stoppage if they don't make big changes within their financial operations. Nobody would be foolish enough to actually start a company that promotes this "dinosaur" art form where our audiences are dying and enthusiasm is waning.

But what I discovered when I began collecting information for this post shocked me. I thought that maybe I could scrape together ten companies who have, against all odds, turned themselves into viable presenters of opera. I was sure there were at least ten who could inspire people and give us all hope. I started brainstorming.

As I began thinking about the articles I had read and asking people I knew for suggestions, I realized that actually, narrowing it down to ten worthy organizations to focus on would be a bit of a challenge. Then a friend referred me to a list that a musician and blogger has been putting together since the year 2000 of every new organization formed to present opera, and there were TWO HUNDRED AND FORTY ORGANIZATIONS LISTED. The listing spans the entire country, ranging in budget, scope, mission, repertoire, format and vision. There are companies created to present contemporary composers, baroque companies presenting opera with period instruments, companies commited to presenting traditional operas to underserved areas, companies that perform in bars, schools and on docked ships. Companies whose budgets started in the low thousands and have grown to the millions. In fact, there were so many excellent choices and so many people to acknowledge, my original article was rejected by the Huffington Post for being too long, and I had to separate it into installments.

I have to tell you -- I thought to myself: We've been bamboozeled. Opera is so far from dying it isn't even funny. Opera in the U.S in 2014 is practically a newborn baby.

Are the biggest companies suffering from financial strain? Yes. But is interest in opera waning? Absolutely not! It is as passionate and varied as ever. And so I present to you ten companies that I chose as a sampling of the organizations that have come into being just since the new millenium. I tried to choose examples that were geographically diverse, as well as varying in repertoire, method of presentation, budget, and mission.

First installment: Five companies that present modern and contemporary opera:

Opera Parallele, San Francisco, CA.
Year Founded: 2004, began presenting only opera; 2007
Current annual budget: $650,000 - $900,000
Number of productions per season: Two fully staged productions plus extras
Mission: Founded by conductor Nicole Paiement as a contemporary music ensemble, her mission to present opera exclusively came about after she worked on the revision and presentation of Lou Harrison's "Young Ceasar". She made a commitment to see the project to its completion in spite of the unexpected death of the composer. Following this premiere, the company expanded its board and has been producing two operas per year since 2009. Opera Parallele is the only organization in the Bay Area presenting fully staged contemporary opera exclusively. The company continues to earn rave reviews for the clarity of their mission and the high quality of the work they produce. From the company website: "Since it was founded, Opera Parallèle has presented 134 performances including 30 world premieres, released 14 recordings, and commissioned 20 new works; and has performed in North America, Australia, and Asia". That is quite a list of accomplishments for a company just entereing their 10th season. They have also managed to find a sucessful niche for themselves, despite existing in a city that already boasts a major opera house. (I will be performing the role of Sister Helen in a new production of "Dead Man Walking" with Opera Parallele in February and March of next year which is how the company first came to my attention.)

Beth Morrison Projects and PROTOTYPE Festival, New York NY and beyond
Founded : 2006
Current Annual Budget: $900,000 - $1.2 Million
Number of Productions per season: Fluctuates year to year. This year: three world premieres, two New York premieres, four workshops, three tours, and a festival.
Mission: Force of Nature Beth Morrison founded her eponymously named organiztion for living composers. She considers herself a composers producer. She wanted to "push the boundaries of what opera and art could be - and to theatricalize the art form and contemporize it. BMP is a boutique operation that works against the notion of institutionalizing art. There are no formulas. Only artists visions and dreams." Since 2006, she has established herself as a true leader in producing and presenting contemporary music, with a new model that she basically created herself. The New York Times did a profile of Morrison and said about her organization, "Starting with a practical dreamer's sophisticated gamble on a new paradigm for staging contemporary opera, the company is now a potent creative force." She wanted to breathe new life into the art form and the artists who create it and she has done that and more. Her organization continues to grow fiscally and she takes on more new projects each season.

UrbanArias, Arlington, VA
Founded: 2010
Current Annual Budget: $150,000
Number of productions per season: Two fully staged productions, two-four produced short works programs
Mission: Founder Robert Wood is an opera conductor who loves the art form and wanted to create a forumla which would encourage more people to experience it. He came up with the idea to produce short (under 90 minutes) contemporary (composed in the last 40 years) opera with the hopes that by removing some of the barriers that prevent newcomers from believing they can actually enjoy opera (length and langauge, for example) he might be able to entice new audiences into this engrossing combination of music and theater. Working as an assistant conductor and chorus master on several world premieres, it occurred to Wood that not nearly enough composers were getting the chance to premiere their works, and he wanted to do something about it. "UrbanArias is known for their fresh, witty, and often crazy takes on opera" (DCTheater Scene). The list of singers and collaborators who have worked with UrbanArias in the few short years since its inception is a testament to the kind of work they are doing on a relatively small budget, which continues to increase each year.

Odyssey Opera, Boston, MA
Founded: 2013
Current Annual Budget: Not disclosed
Number of productions per season: Varies; 2014: two fully staged productions and two concert operas
Mission: Founded by conductor Gil Rose after the beloved company Opera Boston, for which he served as artistic director, had to shut its doors, the company mission is to produce lesser known works and commissions with world class artists. Their first few productions have received reviews bordering on rhapsodical, and they have an unusal financial strategy to avoid the monetary pitfalls of their predecessor; they are currently a "pay as you go ad-hoc organization" where each new project will not go forward until the financial obligations are met or at least promised. When I asked for their annual budget, I was told they could not disclose it. They also don't have a set number of productions or a set season. In an interview with The Boston Globe, Rose explains his mission; "What we're dedicated to -- the guiding principle, really, for us -- is the exploration of repertoire... there has been a phenomenon, in both the symphonic and the opera world, where the choices of what's acceptable to the audience, what the theoretical paying audience wants to see, has been seemingly narrowed." In a town like Boston, with quite an array of musical choices, Odessy Opera already seems to have found not only a very enthusiastic audience, but an unsual organizational strategy that faces any financial challenges head-on.

The Industry, Los Angeles, CA
Founded: 2010
Current Annual Budget: $150,000
Productions per season: Fluctuates depending upon projects plus biannual new works festival. Next world premiere slated for 2015.
Mission: I first got to know wunderkind Yuval Sharon when he was in charge of the Vox Festival at the New York City Opera, which presented a sampling of new works with full orchestra. After Sharon assisted Achim Freyer in Los Angeles for his Ring Cycle, he "fell in love with the city's range of possibilities and the enthusiasm audiences here have for the new and the daring," and so The Industry was born. Their mission is defintely about pushing the boundaries of how one thinks of opera, with the use of unsual environments, experimental media, and interdiscipinary collaborations. Their enormously successful project called "Invisible Cities", in which the audience members wandered among the chaos of Union Station, listening to the score wearing headphones and interacting with both the actors and the public, garnered an enormous amount of press. The piece was a finalist for the Pullitzer Prize among other accolades, and will be released as a recording later this fall on The Industry's own record label, Industry Records. Another important component of the Industry is the biannual new works festival called First Take, which continues the work Sharon began at Vox, developing and presenting new pieces and up and coming composers. The Industry's next large scale project, "Hopscotch", was recently previewed in the Los Angeles Times.

It is true that none of these organizations present more than a few fully staged operas per season, and that most of their budgets don't allow them to do "grand scale opera." However, they represent a shift in the way we look at the art form, and remind us that bringing art to a community sometimes requires building blocks that start on a smaller scale. The exciting news is that these organizations represent just a sampling of what is currently happening in opera presenting in the U.S. since the new millenium. There are also more well known organizations like the Gotham Chamber Opera, who some would say remains the shining example of how a boutique opera company can not only survive, but thrive and grow. Also in New York City, we have American Lyric Theater, commissioning and producing new works, Operamission, presenting varied works that are often informal and educational, and On Site Opera, presenting operas in locations that fit the opera itself. There are literally too many success stories to list in just one article, and that, in and of itself, is the news we should be spreading. What these new companies that are succeeding have in common is a clear mission and an incredible belief in and commitment to what they are bringing to the public.

Opera as an art form is thriving, pulsating, changing, and adapting. From the oldest operas in existence to ones that have yet to be thought of, there are passionate people all across the country thinking of new and exciting ways to bring this art form to as many people as they can. Let's spread this news and let the world know that the only thing ready to die is the joke about the fat lady singing. The rest of the industry is alive and well, and making a contribution to the landscape of the culture with projects large and small.

Opera is dead my foot.

Stay tuned for part two....