While many opera professionals continually bemoan the fact that audiences aren't getting any younger, other than the Santa Fe Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, and Opera Theatre of St. Louis, few companies have been courageous enough to embrace an artistic policy that would commit them to staging new works on a regular basis. At a recent opera conference, controversial stage director Peter Sellars warned a crowd of traditionally-minded operatic producers that he represents the next generation of creative talent and, if people are not going to cooperate with him, the very least they could do is get the hell out of his way.
This summer, American audiences have been exposed to a surprising number of operas by contemporary composers. Philip Glass's groundbreaking Satyagraha and The Making of the Representative from Planet 8 have been performed in Seattle and Houston. Krzysztof Penderecki's The Black Mask will soon receive its American premiere at the Santa Fe Opera. The New York City Opera is about to unveil Jay Reise's Rasputin, and in November, the Dallas Opera will present the world premiere of Dominick Argento's The Aspern Papers. Two weeks later, Opera San Jose will present the world premiere of Alva Henderson's West of Washington Square.
Further down the line, Holy Blood and Crescent Moon, the first opera to be composed by Stewart Copeland (drummer for the rock group Police) is scheduled to have its world premiere at the Cleveland Opera. In 1989, the Opera Theater of St. Louis will unveil a new science fiction opera, Under The Double Moon, with a score by Anthony Davis. And, following the success of Nixon in China, we hear that Peter Sellars is working with John Adams on a new opera about the hijacking of the S.S. Achille Lauro.
When confronted by such irreverent antics, the opera world's old guard bristles with rage. And yet, the same conservative audiences who decry the use of four-letter words onstage can blissfully ignore the politics, immorality, and harsh realities of Violetta's wholesale whoring, Scarpia's sadistic tortures, and the Duke of Mantua's impressive track record as a rapist -- as long as these activities are backed by opera's hit tunes.
Ever since the Vietnam War and the social upheaval engendered by the sexual and drug revolutions, our society has undergone frequent and dramatic change. While the operatic art form boasts a glorious past, the people entrusted with its future can no longer afford to seek shelter from reality by hiding in the nineteenth century.
In order for opera to become a popular art form in America it must embrace new sounds, new thoughts, new language, and new technologies. Clinging tenaciously to the hit tunes of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini won't solve the problem. We are at the dawn of the twenty-first century, and if opera is to survive, its producers and audiences must take greater artistic risks than they ever even dared consider before.
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This article originally appeared in the August 1988 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.