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Why New Opera?

By Eric Reda


Why New Opera?

The entire enterprise of creating new opera just seems so ephemeral and exclusive. Every season we see a freshly minted score at some U.S. company playing for a very few performances to a relatively select group of individuals. Then next season, while we hear nothing of the heralded new voice, we once again have CarmenLa Bohème, and Aida to delight us. One begins to wonder if the process of creating new works is a futile endeavor. It is not. Investing in the creation and consumption of new opera is not only important as an exercise in supporting living artists, it is also vital to the survival of the form.

The “classical-centric” among us will claim that the opera house is a place for conservation rather than innovation. The prevailing belief being that the mission of modern opera companies and practitioners is to protect the sanctity of the standard repertoire rather than to provide a home for innovation, save, perhaps, in the realm of design. But this is a modern development. Prior to World War I, audiences clamored for new works. The latest operas by Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, and Wagner were all devoured as soon as they could be consumed. This held true in the United States, as well.

For me, there is nothing better than to experience something brand new. Don’t get me wrong. I think that conservation is very important. In addition to being an advocate for new opera, I am also a fan of the standard repertoire, always delighting in the chance to immerse myself in a fresh take on Rigoletto, Tosca, or the Ring Cycle. However, while I know what Carmen and La Bohème sound like note by note, and love them, I am much more thrilled by the potential of experiencing what might become the next modern masterpiece.

I am not alone, as this attitude seems to be catching amongst a younger, more daring audience outside of major U.S. metropolises. Hopefully this will inform the current opera establishment. If producing organizations fostered the creation and revival of more contemporary American operas that are engaging, challenging, and relevant, they have the potential to bringing in the new audiences, perhaps even Millennials, they have so actively been wooing.

Ultimately, I hold that despite the challenges of producing new opera, we as supporters, aficionados, creators, and practitioners of the art form must support the creation of new works. It not only provides employment for so many deserving artists, it also makes a statement: This is us. This is what we believe right now, in this time and this place. This is what is important, relevant, and pressing. This is what we agree, as collaborators in front of and behind the curtain, needs to be heard right now and saved for the ages.

It is easy to forget that less than 100 years ago, Puccini and Busoni were alive and premiering works that are now a part of the canon. Strauss, a composer with feet in two centuries, premiered his late canonical works a mere 75 years ago.  Even many of the most performed modern operas by composers such as Stravinsky, Britten, Berg, and Menotti are well over 50 years old. These works captured the specific aesthetic and zeitgeist of their time. They encapsulated something unclassifiable about the generation in which they were written, something that demanded to be heard. We then demanded that they be reheard. And heard again. And then heard again.

Just remember all operas were new operas at some point. Some were hits at their premieres and have remained part of the canon. Some have been forgotten, only later to be rediscovered as masterpieces. And others, oh so many others, are yet to be rediscovered and given new voice. But you… you are lucky. With the premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain at The Santa Fe Opera, you may be among the first to support and experience the next great American opera. If you like it, be vocal. Tell others. Watch the telecast. Buy the recording. And, for goodness sake, demand to hear it again.