Back in the 1970s, with the kind of foresight that is rare for a politician, President Jimmy Carter launched a bold program designed to wean America from its slave-like dependency on foreign oil. Although Carter was a strong supporter of solar power, wind power and other alternative sources of energy, his successor, Ronald Reagan, loved big, gas-guzzling cars. 1991's crisis in the Persian Gulf is part of the price America must now pay for Reagan's shortsighted elimination of Carter's energy initiatives.
And so, with opera fans all geared up to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death, this might be the perfect time to question what's being done to make sure new operas are created in the years which lie ahead. The need for new works is critical. If we don't keep adding contemporary voices to the repertoire, the operatic art form will stagnate, lose vitality and become increasing irrelevant.
Throughout my years as an opera journalist, I have tried to stress the wealth of American ideas to be found in the repertoire, ranging from Stephen Paulus's The Postman Always Rings Twice to Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice And Men; from Benjamin Britten's Paul Bunyan to Thea Musgrave's Harriet, The Woman Called Moses. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be writing about opera in a time when the art form is rapidly becoming a popular style of entertainment in this country.
More than a third of a century has passed since the ball started rolling in that direction. In the spring of 1958, the Ford Foundation underwrote a short season of American works at the New York City Opera. These included Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, Marc Blitzstein's Regina, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah and a double bill of Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Medium and The Old Maid And The Thief.
The following spring, NYCO produced Kurt Weill's Street Scene, Douglas Moore's The Devil and Daniel Webster, Robert Ward's He Who Gets Slapped and Hugo Weisgall's Six Characters In Search Of An Author. Subsequent seasons brought the world premieres of Robert Ward's The Crucible, Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden, Douglas Moore's The Wings Of The Dove and Carlisle Floyd's The Passion of Jonathan Wade (which was recently revised and re-premiered by the Houston Grand Opera).
Although, by the late 1960s, a grass-roots expansion of opera had begun in America, there was precious little communication between regional opera companies. That changed dramatically in 1970, with the formation of OPERA America (the service organization for professional producing opera companies). As OPERA America struggled to identify the needs of its membership and art form, the question of how to produce new works by American composers kept rearing its head.
An OPERA America conference hosted by Detroit's Michigan Opera Theater led to the creation of the Opera For The Eighties And Beyond program (OFTEAB), which developed a three-tiered structure of grants to help new works down the birth canal. Not only did OFTEAB's guidelines provide money that could help pair composers with librettists, it often provided funding to underwrite workshop productions of new pieces. Among the operas which benefitted from OFTEAB grants were Anthony Davis's X: The Life And Times Of Malcolm X, Michael Korie & Stewart Wallace's Where's Dick?, John Adams' Nixon In China, William Harper's Snow Leopard, Christopher Drobny's Lucy's Lapses, Libby Larsen's Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, Meredith Monk's Atlas: An Opera In Three Parts and Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. Upcoming premieres include Morton Subotnick's Jacob's Room, Philip Glass and Henry David Hwang's The Voyage and Anthony Davis's Tania (an opera about the 1972 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst).
In 1992, Lyric Opera of Chicago will premiere William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein's McTeague (an opera set in San Francisco during its Gold Rush days). In 1993, the Piedmont Opera will unveil Robert Chumley and Dugg McDonough's Ordinary People (based on Judith Guest's award-winning novel and movie). Opera Delaware will stage the world premiere of an as-yet untitled work about the Vietnam War (written by Conrad Cummings, Tom Bird & Robert T. Jones) and Opera Memphis will present the world premiere of Christopher Drobny's Kissing and Horrid Strife -- a new piece based on the works of D.H. Lawrence.
Meanwhile, the Houston Grand Opera has announced a special program aimed at producing new works for audiences which don't fit into the mainstream opera crowd. These will include Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla's "tango opera" Maria de Buenos Aires, Bill T. Jones's Mother of Three Sons, Robert Moran and Michael John LaChiusa's Desert of Roses and, most probably, the American premiere of Michael Korie and Stewart Wallace's Harvey Milk.
In recent years, the Houston Grand Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Minnesota Opera and Opera Theater of St. Louis have championed the cause of the American composer while composer-in-residence programs have been created by the Canadian Opera Company and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Both the San Francisco Opera and Los Angeles Music Center Opera have become co-producers of John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer. In 1993-94, Christopher Keene will produce a season-long celebration of American opera to mark the 50th anniversary season of the New York City Opera.
Ardis Krainik, the feisty General Director of Lyric Opera of Chicago (who is currently serving a term as President of OPERA America), has taken the bold step of committing her company to producing at least one important American work each season for the rest of the decade. But with the National Endowment for the Arts under constant attack from right-wing forces (who perceive opera to be an elitist art form) and the nation's economy crippled by the current recession, one wonders where America's opera companies will find sufficient funds to keep creating new works.
Good news arrived with the announcement that OPERA America recently received a five-year, $5 million grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund to support the development, commissioning and production of new works while funding efforts to use these works to reach new audiences. The first grants from this program (appropriately named the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Opera for a New America) will be awarded this summer.
The LWRDOFANA program is designed to be especially supportive of projects that bring opera to people who have been unable to participate fully in the artistic life of their communities. Grants in six categories range from $500 to $150,000, with a $350,000 limit per company. In the five years for which funding has been committed, OPERA America expects to deliver more than 350 grants to approximately 70 of its member companies.
"It's time for America to put on its own show with works on American subjects which have been created by American artists and produced by American opera houses for American audiences," stresses Ardis Krainik. "Opera has put down strong roots in America. It is no longer a foreign art form with only a tentative foothold in the new world."
I couldn't agree with her more.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 27, 1991.