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A Magazine of Ideas

America’s Opera Boom

From the July/August 2007 Issue

The U.S. now has 125 opera companies. That’s more than Germany or Italy, and roughly as many Americans attend live opera performances as attend NFL football games. JONATHAN LEAF examines a surprising phenomenon—beyond the Met.

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Should you have stepped inside the Ordway Center, a grand temple of culture in downtown St. Paul, on a damp night in April that even Minnesotans found bone-chilling, you would have seen crowds of people in brightly colored evening gowns and demure business suits standing in unison, loudly hailing Korean soprano Youngok Shin.

One of the world’s most respected classical singers, she had just concluded a dazzling performance in the title role of Lakmé, an opera by Leo Delibes—fairly obscure except for a famous aria and a duet—set in West Bengal. 

Around Shin on the stage were dozens of choristers in either saffron and tangerine saris or khaki and mustard British army uniforms. Coming to join them was the conductor Michael Guttler in his charcoal tuxedo. Behind the phalanx of figures curtsying and bowing was the bamboo front of a temple pagoda—where Lakmé had chosen to give her life to save her lover. 

Even as moviegoing stagnates and symphony attendance declines, opera in America keeps growing. Over a 20-year period, the number of people at live opera performances grew 46 percent.

The Ordway Center holds 1,780 and, although the tickets ran to over $100 apiece, the house was nearly sold out. In the pit, playing behind Guttler, was an enlarged version of the widely admired St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and, if only dimly, its musicians could be seen rising and standing at the behest of the maestro and the crowd. 

Lakmé is one of five operas that the Minnesota Opera will present this year, and the success of the production illustrates one of the most unexpected developments in American life today: the burgeoning popularity of live opera. Even as symphony attendance declines and movie-theater admissions stagnate, opera-going has blossomed. The U.S., believe it or not, is one of the global leaders. 

The U.S. now has 125 professional opera companies, 60 percent of them launched since 1970, according to the trade group OPERA America. The U.S. has more opera companies than Germany and nearly twice as many as Italy. In the most comprehensive recent study, the National Endowment for the Arts found that between 1982 and 2002, total attendance at live opera performances grew 46 percent. 

Annual admissions are now estimated at 20 million, roughly the same attendance as NFL football games (22 million, including playoffs, in 2006–07). In part, this reflects a shift toward seeing opera domestically. “Foreign opera destinations like Salzburg and Glyndebourne are more expensive, and more Americans are staying home—and probably feeling safer for it,” says Richard Gaddes, general director of the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico. 

Consequently, opera travel within the U.S.—even by foreigners—is booming. The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis drew attendees last year from 42 U.S. states, in addition to France, Germany, Britain, and Canada. Likewise, the Seattle Opera gets loads of Germans eager to see its highly regarded productions of Wagner’s operas. Gaddes says his company is “the major economic engine of tourism in Santa Fe.” 

And the number of American opera productions continues to increase. As of 2005, OPERA America included companies under its aegis in 44 states. They put on 3,012 performances (up by one-third in just four years) of 420 different opera productions. Opera companies, moreover, are raising large amounts of money: $387 million in private contributions in 2005 alone. 

Aficionados on this cold spring night at the Ordway Center applaud with an engaged but controlled heartiness in the Scandinavian style. There are no garlands tossed on the stage.

The aficionados on this cold spring night at the Ordway Center are overwhelmingly local, living within a few hours’ drive, and they applaud with an engaged but controlled heartiness in the Scandinavian style. There are no garlands tossed on the stage, nor calls from the rafters of “Brava!” Yet the midwestern crowd plainly knows that it has seen something special—that Youngok Shin, who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera as Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, among others, has shimmered in one of the most vocally and dramatically difficult roles in the coloratura repertoire. 

It’s hard to say how many in the crowd have seen Lakmé before. Probably not many. A passage from the opera’s “Flower Duet” (Sous le dôme épais) is used in British Airways commercials and heard not infrequently through Muzak orchestrations in shopping malls, but Lakmé itself is infrequently performed. This isn’t La Bohème, but that’s the point. Americans are embracing a wide variety of operas. At the Washington National Opera this spring, Leos Janacek’s Jenufa, a stark and disturbing production sung in Czech, was the success of the season. 

Apart from its relative longevity, the Minnesota Opera, launched in 1963, is typical of U.S. companies, with an $8 million budget and a full-time staff of 29 crafts people who build sets and props and sew costumes. It has made its name by focusing, at least in part, on a distinctive repertory: 18th- and 19th-century works by important but unfamiliar composers like Mercadante and 20th-century operas like Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress

Most of the nation’s 125 opera companies are small- to medium-size businesses, organized under the tax code as nonprofits. Even if they have excelled in recent years in developing and promoting new singers and repertory, their directors are often more occupied with fundraising and marketing than with artistic matters. Says Kevin Smith, the Minnesota Opera’s president, “If you go to an OPERA America meeting, the complaints of the company directors focus mostly on things like [finding] money, working with unions, and the trends in subscription sales.” Charles MacKay, executive director of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, acknowledges, “More time goes into fundraising or thinking about fundraising than anything else.” 

'Tough as it is, the American system is good in a lot of ways. In France, they have seven or eight companies that get all the money.... Here, it's a grassroots system, and you have to demonstrate your value.'

Mounting a production is expensive, and, even with triple-digit ticket prices, all operas lose money, so the success or failure of each company is tied to its ability to find charismatic and capable leadership and to cultivate local patrons. The rapid growth of the Los Angeles Opera, which was founded only in 1986 but now puts on 10 productions and 75 performances per year in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with a $54 million budget, is closely connected to the leadership of its general director, the tenor Placido Domingo, who has attracted contributions from philanthropists like Eli Broad, the billionaire homebuilder and financier. (Four years ago, Domingo also became general director of the Washington National Opera, a highly regarded company where he is working similar magic.) 

Are patrons like Broad simply longtime opera fans just now coming out of the shadows? Not necessarily, says Smith. “The best board member often isn’t an opera buff. It could be someone who’s passionately interested in learning.” 

While the U.S. has more opera companies now than any other nation, total funding remains below that in Germany and other nations. European companies receive massive state subsidies—far out of proportion to the occasional NEA, state, and city grants that U.S. groups get. 

“Aggregated, all government subsidies only come to 5 or 6 percent of the U.S. companies’ funding,” says Marc Scorca, the president of OPERA America. But, he adds that funding from the NEA in particular often has a “leveraging effect. It influences donors” as a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval. 

Despite the attraction of government money, Smith believes that there is something “healthy about needing to prove yourself to the community on a daily basis.” He says, “Tough as it is, the American system is good in a lot of ways. In France, they have seven or eight companies that get all the money. If you’re not year-round and fully professional, you don’t get any support. Here, it’s a grassroots system, and you have to demonstrate your value.” 

Charles McKay, executive director of the Opera Theater of Saint Louis, acknowledges, 'More time goes into fundraising or thinking about fundraising than anything else.'

The structure of U.S. companies varies. In some cases, a strong leader functions both as artistic director and chief administrator in the manner of Sir Rudolf Bing, who ran the Met from 1950 to 1972. Speight Jenkins, the general director of the Seattle Opera, for example, assumes this dual role. More typical, however, is the setup in Minnesota. Smith, a slender man in his fifties with a red beard, is in charge of administration, while Dale Johnson, a conservatory-trained pianist and former vocal coach, serves as the artistic director. “I report to the board, and Dale reports to me,” Smith explains. “It’s better this way. The board can fire me if they don’t like things, but one person is in between.” 

On the morning I meet them, Smith and Johnson are on a high, savoring a recent rave review from the Los Angeles Times for their production of a new opera by Ricky Ian Gordon based on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Minnesota Opera’s successful introduction of new works is characteristic of a wider pattern. Almost all of the most acclaimed recent operas have been introduced outside New York. John Adams’s Nixon in China was first presented by the Houston Grand Opera, Tobias Picker’s Emmeline by Santa Fe, Kirke Mechem’s Tartuffe by San Francisco. The last, a gorgeous, touching, and amusing opera, has had over 300 productions in six countries since its premiere in 1980. 

Stefania de Kenessey, a highly regarded new composer working on an opera based on Tom Wolfe’s novel about Wall Street, Bonfire of the Vanities—with Wolfe’s enthusiastic encouragement—says that companies outside New York can be easier to work with. “The regional companies usually plan out their schedules three to four years in advance, while the Met plans out about eight years ahead. That means the regionals can be more flexible in picking new works and can more easily spot and take advantage of musical trends.” 

Coverage in the national press, however, still focuses on the Metropolitan Opera. With an annual attendance of 800,000, a budget of $200 million, a 125-year history, and an international radio network distributing its Saturday performances, the Met swallows up most of the criticism and reporting allotted in media arts sections for opera. Says Smith, “We have to work a lot harder to get national. For one thing, the critics usually don’t really have much of a travel budget.” 

The Met deserves its reputation, with the world’s best singers, a superb orchestra, and lavish spectacle. Last year, the Met, under its new general manager, Peter Gelb, inaugurated high-definition video presentations of several of its operas in movie theaters around the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Europe. But in other respects, the Met is ill-suited to assume a tutelary role. Few of today’s top singers first made their names on its stage, and the Met’s immense size works against both dramatic effect and subtle and refined singing. 

The Met is designed to hold an audience of nearly 4,000 in a structure with five ascending tiers and broad rows of seats. By contrast, La Scala in Milan has 2,000 seats; the Vienna State Opera, 1,700; and the State Opera in Berlin, 1,300. These more conventional operatic theaters, which can feel almost like drawing rooms, have an intimacy that the Met cannot come close to matching. 

Into the Met’s vast space, singers must project—without amplification—across a stage extending 80 feet back, 103 feet across, and 110 feet up to the rigging. The result is a preference in New York for singers with gargantuan, if sometimes metallic, voices. Not only can the hall’s scale dwarf the singers and the story, but it can damage young voices. 

As a result, the list of American-born stars who made their names outside New York is impressive: Jane Eaglen in Seattle; Renee Fleming in Omaha, Houston, and at the Virginia Opera; Maria Callas in Dallas and Chicago; Deborah Voigt in San Francisco; David Daniels and Lauren Flanigan at Glimmerglass in upstate New York. 

Among the recent operas that have been introduced outside New York are John Adam's Nixon in China at the Houston Grand Opera, Tobias Picker's Emmeline in Santa Fe, and Kirke Mechems's Tartuffe in San Francisco.

St. Louis has had remarkable success at finding excellent new singers. Its alumni include Susan Graham, Dawn Upshaw, Thomas Hampson, Kiri Te Kanawa, Patricia Racette, and Suzanne Mentzer. Explains MacKay: “Our theater is 987 seats. The size is appropriate for developing singers.” 

The new opportunities in the United States have made a big difference. Says James Conlon, music director of the Los Angeles Opera, “It’s this simple: the emergence of regional opera in the last 30 years has replaced the necessity of American singers going to Europe to forge a career.” A New York native, Conlon himself served as a music director at the Paris Opera and in Cologne, Germany, before Domingo, his old collaborator, persuaded him to come home. 

Two of America’s best opera companies perform during summer festivals in outdoor settings: Santa Fe, founded in 1957, and Glimmerglass, started in 1975. Both have played crucial roles in bringing important new singers to international attention. Betty Eveillard, who chairs the board of trustees at Glimmerglass, says that the thrill of first seeing countertenor David Daniels in Handel’s Tamerlano in the early stages of his career encouraged her not only to give money herself but also to ask others to give. “When you’re discovering great new things—like voices like Daniels’s,” she says, “it gives you a wonderful reason.” 

At Glimmerglass, with 900 seats in Cooperstown, New York, and sliding doors open to the invigorating night air, Eveillard says, “There’s a magic, with the summer, the location, and the opera house. It’s a total experience.” Similarly, almost since its founding, Santa Fe has been known as a showcase for singers and for the American introductions of works now famous, including several by Richard Strauss, such as Daphne

This trend toward doing new works appears to be broadening. According to Santa Fe’s Gaddes, “The repertory of opera companies has changed [since] 10 or 15 years ago. It’s become more adventurous and more contemporary.” In many cases, the premieres of new or unfamiliar productions are selling better than the repertory staples like Verdi’s La Traviata. The Minnesota Opera notes that it sold more than 98 percent of the tickets for The Grapes of Wrath, and St. Louis is proud of its sellout of an opera by David Carlson based on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. This summer’s Santa Fe program includes the American premiere of Chinese contemporary composer Tan Dun’s Tea: Mirror of the Soul, sung in English, and three other new productions. 

Says Gaddes, “People are much less intimidated by the new pieces that are being done. Plus, they have more disposable income. Young people with income say, ‘Let’s give opera a try.’” He attributes some of the acceptance of new works—and of opera generally—to the rise of captioning. With the singers’ words in supertitles above the stage or on seat titles right in front of the audience (as at Santa Fe and the Met), the experience is more intelligible and comfortable. 

Modern music videos have helped, too. Scorca says that, for many young people, “opera is like what they know from MTV. It’s visual, colorful—the original multimedia art form.” 

American opera is not exactly MTV, but—unlike many European companies, which, as Smith says, “have disassociated themselves from the public taste,” in part because their money comes from government—U.S. companies work hard to attract audiences and donors by putting on accessible, if often challenging, productions. 

The need for public support provides an antidote to pretentious and inscrutable productions (Europeans have a penchant for placing traditional operas in bleak modern settings) and an incentive to build the audience and promote the art form. This means an emphasis not only on finding the best singers but also on tailoring the schedule to suit local tastes and interests. The Minnesota Opera, for example, staged Antonin Dvorak’s beautiful but infrequently produced Rusalka to appeal to the state’s large Czech community. Similarly, the company is now planning a collaborative production with a local Wagner society that may entice the area’s heavy German-American population. In addition, when Johnson realized that Minnesota opera-goers had a particular liking for French repertory, he programmed more of it. 

The Minnesota Opera staged Antonin Dvorak's beautiful but infrequently produced Rusalka to appeal to the state's large Czech community.

Many experts say the shift toward a local emphasis in American opera reflects the disbanding of the Met’s touring company, which once featured stars like Enrico Caruso and Franco Corelli traveling all over the country on a train filled with singers, orchestra players, stagehands, sets, and props. The Los Angeles Opera was inaugurated the very year that the Met stopped coming to California. 

“The Met tours turned a lot of people on to opera in the United States,” says Smith, “but with the rise of jet travel, singers don’t want to be on the road for a whole season any more, and…singers can more easily come to smaller cities like Minneapolis to do single shows.” 

Unlike the touring Met, regional companies typically try to carve out a unique niche for themselves, while recognizing an obligation to make the traditional repertory exciting. The Los Angeles Opera, for instance, has won special attention for reawakening interest in fine early-20th-century European opera composers like Korngold and Zemlinsky. But, director Conlon says, “There’s an equal responsibility in doing the standard repertory to the highest quality. I am not ashamed to do Carmen—so many young people have not heard it.” 

Then he adds, “I’m often approached in a restaurant or a café and people will tell me that they’d never seen some very famous opera before, and how much they loved it. The standard repertory brings me back to when I was 12 years old, the excitement I knew when I first went.” This kind of joy is what American opera, too new to be jaded, is all about. 

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist who lives in New York.

Photographs © Michal Daniel, 2007.