Opera More Than Ever: Unusual Works to Discover in 2017-2018

Monday, February 06, 2017 - 10:08 AM

Catalina Cuervo as Frida Kahlo in Cincinnati Opera's 'Frida' (John Grigaitis / Michigan Opera Theatre)

One of the themes I want to address often in this new year is the degree to which opera is more vital, more fascinating, more relevant than ever. Companies everywhere continue to expand the repertory and develop new ways of producing familiar and new works.

Standard repertory — those familiar works by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Wagner, Bizet, Puccini and others — is the bread and butter of opera. They are essential for the well-being of companies and their budgets, but also are masterpieces loved by most audiences. We never tire of Don Giovanni, Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto and Tosca and enjoy seeing interpretations by singers and directors who help us learn more about these characters who speak to us so profoundly.

It is important to have new experiences and push creative boundaries in unusual directions. Bread and butter are delicious when they are well-made, but sometimes the addition of an unusual jam or honey makes all the difference.

Right now, opera companies around the world are optimistically announcing their new seasons and hope that their loyal and adventuresome audiences will come for bread and butter and also try the jam. The Metropolitan Opera announces quite soon and I will devote an article to that. The Royal Opera and English National Opera in London announce in April and La Scala comes soon too. The New York Philharmonic announces on Feb. 8. It usually has compelling programming that includes vocal music.

Los Angeles Opera is a trailblazer in terms of its offerings, though hardly alone in this endeavor. Washington and Philadelphia are among other leaders. LA’s 2017-18 season reflects a sense of opera as an art form without walls and barriers. Traditional works by Bizet, Verdi and others will be at the Dorothy Chandler pavilion but other operas, some new and all enticing, come under the umbrella of an initiative called LA Opera Off Grand and will be in unusual venues.

Southern California audiences can hear Matthew Aucoin’s Crossing (inspired by Walt Whitman’s Civil War experiences); Philip Glass’s score for Jean Cocteau’s classic film La Belle et La Bête; Keeril Makan’s opera Persona, inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film; and Gordon Getty’s double-bill of Usher House and The Canterville Ghost. LA also is a co-presenter of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice that I will discuss below.

Here’s a lot more operatic honey and jam coming soon:

March 11-19: Still in this season but too enticing to ignore — Dinner at Eight, a new opera by the great William Bolcom with a libretto by Mark Campbell. Part of Minnesota Opera’s excellent New Works Initiative. The story is based on the comic play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber that became a classic film.

June: LoftOpera in Brooklyn, which has a diverse offering in 2017 including Rossini’s Otello, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, stages Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), the oldest opera still in the repertory, coinciding with the 450th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

June 23-July 8: Following on the heels of the huge success of Fellow Travelers in 2016, Cincinnati Opera presents Frida, about the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The 1991 opera has music by Robert Xavier Rodríguez and a libretto by Hilary Blecher and Migdalia Cruz.

Sept. 14-25: Opera Philadelphia presents its O17 Festival, offering the world premieres of three operas, two other opera productions and many cultural initiatives all over town. The operas are Elizabeth CreeWe Shall Not Be Moved and The Wake World.

Sept. 23: The Lyric Opera of Chicago will announce its new season on Feb. 7 with general director Anthony Freud and music director Sir Andrew Davis addressing an audience of subscribers who will also hear tenor Russell Thomas sing. This is an unusual and pro-active means of audience engagement and I will be interested to see how it turns out. One presentation has already been announced: Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice will premiere in Chicago in a co-production with LA Opera, the Joffrey Ballet and the Hamburg Ballet. It will be directed, choreographed and designed by Europe-based John Neumeier making an important return to his native land. The dance sequences will be fuller than usually seen in productions of this opera.

Nov. 30-Dec. 14: Houston Grand Opera presents the world premiere of The House Without a Christmas Tree, a holiday opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek.

Jan. 19 and 21, 2018: Washington National Opera presents Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s Proving Up. They are the team that premiered the superb Breaking the Waves in Philadelphia in 2016. On Jan. 20, Three Twenty Minutes Operas, a part of the American Opera Initiative Festival will offer three world premieres.

Feb. 11-17, 2018: Dallas Opera presents works entirely new to me, a double bill of Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto (1945) and The Ring of Polykrates, a one-act opera composed in 1913 when he was 16-years-old. From March 9-17, 2018, Dallas presents the U.S. premiere of Sunken Garden by Michel van der Aa with libretto by British novelist David Mitchell.

Feb. 24-Mar. 10, 2018: Seattle Opera presents a new take on Beatrice and Benedict, combining the music of Berlioz with text drawn from Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing.

March 25, 2018: The English Concert led by Harry Bicket makes annual appearances at Carnegie Hall with concert versions of Handel operas. They will perform Ariodante starring Joyce DiDonato on Apr. 30, 2017, and return with Rinaldo next year with a superb cast led by Iestyn Davies and Luca Pisaroni.

April 5-15, 2018: Atlanta Opera presents Out of Darkness: Two Remain by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer about two Holocaust survivors — Polish dissident Krystyna Zywulska and Gad Beck, a gay German Jew. In a similar vein, Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins will have two artists playing the role of Anna, one who sings and one who dances, in this unusual 1933 evocation of the best and worst of human behavior (dates to be announced).


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Comments [8]

Kevin Scott from Wappingers Falls, NY

One company that is doing quite a bit of new opera is Trilogy: An Opera Company, the brainchild of noted bass-baritone Kevin Maynor. Based in New Jersey, Trilogy's focus is to present operas by African-American composers whose works are continuously shunned by major and most regional American opera companies.

Among the operas they have presented have been Dorothy Rudd Moore's "Frederick Douglass", Adolphus Hailstork's "Robeson", Michael Raphael's "Nat Turner" and Anthony Davis' "Five" which deals with the Central Park jogger rape incident in the 1980s. This coming November the company will present Trent Johnson's "Kenyatta".

This chapter of serious American music - the classical works by composers of color - continues to be overlooked, ignored and, in some cases, sneered at because we don't fit the stereotype of what most Americans perceive black musicians should be. Writing classical music, which is deemed European by nature, is the last thing most people expect from people of color. As a black composer and conductor who has performed many works of his friends and colleagues, this segment of our nation's musical legacy should never, ever be shunned.

Feb. 22 2017 07:58 AM
Geo. from St. Louis, MO

For Richard V., the blog post left out Santa Fe Opera, but I filled that gap, having seen said gap. That aside, just had a look at Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2017-2018 season announcement, where the good news for those interested in new opera is that the company will be staging "Fellow Travelers" by Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce, at the Athenaeum Theatre (not the Lyric Opera mainstage).

(The bad news is that Lyric Opera is kind of selling out to stage "Jesus Christ Superstar", as their one musical for the season. I'm reminded of the dialogue between Jeff Goldblum and Anna Massey from the movie "The Tall Guy":

AM: "People said 'Jesus Christ Superstar' was a dumb idea."
JG: "'Jesus Christ Superstar' **was** a dumb idea."
AM (after long enough pause): "True.")

Feb. 11 2017 03:07 PM
Maggie from New York

Yes, the opera repertoire is being enriched by new blood, which is a good thing. But as for today's, younger audiences: note that the NYC school kids who've seen opera brought to them in their schools by the Metropolitan Opera, they LOVE the traditional operas they have been exposed to and beg for more. Please let's not write off traditional opera as not "accessible" by today's kids! They know when they're seeing something emotionally moving and don't need dumbed-down transpositions (e.g., "Cenerentola", to Brooklyn in the 1950s) to appreciate the art. Such productions deprive them of the enrichment of exposure to other cultures and times in history, which, in fact, produced the art they are seeing. What is the point of art, if it avoids the world and is only packaged in scenes and situations we see every day? Why bother with it at all? Let new operas be new -- and classic opera remain true to its culture.

Feb. 09 2017 02:51 PM
richard viano from NJ

Did you leave out Santa Fe opera???

Feb. 07 2017 08:02 AM
Michael Rogers from Vienna, VA

Thank you for this listing. It confirms what I have been sensing that the activity in new opera is growing. In a recent blog post on operagene.com I tried to make the point that while the grand themes of the classic operas are still relevant today, they are not engaging new, younger audiences who are dealing with themes like drug addiction, abortion, current political intrigue, etc. it would be interesting to know how the demographics of audiences for new opera differ, if they do, from the demographics of audiences attending the standard repertoire.

Feb. 06 2017 11:13 PM
Geo. from St. Louis, MO

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is presenting two contemporary works this summer:
(A) Ricky Ian Gordon & Michael Korie: 'The Grapes of Wrath' (premiere of revised version)
(B) Philip Glass & Christopher Hampton: 'The Trial' (North American premiere)

As well, Santa Fe Opera is set to premiere 'The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs' by Mason Bates and Mark Campbell, although after seeing in the recent documentary about Steve Jobs of how bad his behavior could be to people, I wonder what kind of white-washing portrait this opera will present.

Feb. 06 2017 07:17 PM
Eddy Agosto from New York, NY

Also, don't forget about the fantastic production I just heard with Nashville Opera, of a brand new opera called Three Way, which is coming to BAM in June 15-19, 2017 (four shows), co-produced by Nashville Opera, American Opera Projects and featuring the NYC based American Modern Ensemble:


Feb. 06 2017 02:15 PM
DC Tharpe from Tallahassee FL

Thank you, Fred, for this fresh and wonderful news! I always share WQXR opera-related features with my local Operavore group. We cannot seem to get enough! More bread! More butter! More jam!

Feb. 06 2017 11:39 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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