Opera in the 21st Century

This is an update from my post about New Opera organizations formed since 2000 a little over a week ago and the list I’ve been compiling since then. To date I’ve found over 100 organizations which produce opera.  Most of these are actual opera companies with a handful of what look like festivals or presenting organizations or new music ensembles which commission operas for performance by the group.

As I’m gathering more 21st Century Opera organizations I’m coming across patterns and phenomena which I’ve seen before (not to mention the overall pattern of new firm formation and how that fits into a larger picture of fragmentation and specialization). At some point, when I’m relatively sure I’ve got list that’s as close to complete as it’s going to get, I’ll actually start analyzing the data.

Paola Prestini’s multi-media opera, “Oceanic Verses.”

Note that I’ve listed them in chronological order by year of founding and one of the issues that comes with making a time-event list is how to define the data points–or what I’ll refer to as “new firms” (i.e. New Opera Company).

Some cases are pretty straightforward.  For example, when the Baltimore Opera shut its doors in 2009, within months the Baltimore Concert Opera, the Chesapeake Chamber Opera, The Figaro Project all formed, and two years later, the Lyric Opera Baltimore was founded. The Chesapeake Chamber Opera seems to have closed its doors in 2011 around the time that the Lyric Opera Baltimore was formed, and The Figaro Project was on hiatus this year. Basically, one grand opera company folded, three smaller chamber opera companies formed in its wake, a couple years later a new grand opera company was founded and two of the chamber opera companies seem to be no longer active.

This example also highlights that while new firm formation can happen in the wake of the closing of a larger firm, often its the case that there’s simply unused resources (i.e. singers/musicians/staff/administrators) and unmet demand (Baltimore Opera audiences) which get reconstituted in different ways. With the formation of the Lyric Opera Baltimore, some of those resources shifted back to the new grand opera company. I mentioned that something like this happen right here in Louisville in the wake of the Louisville Orchestra labor dispute.

Pic from the Thompson Street Opera Company dress rehearsal of “Ile” by Ezra Donnner. photo by Chelsey Jackson

In some cases, a new firm is simply the merger of two preexisting firms (e.g. North Carolina Opera was formed in 2010 from the merger of the Opera Company of North Carolina and Capital Opera Raleigh). In others, it’s a case of rebranding or renaming (the Opera Company of Philadelphia renamed to Opera Philadelphia in 2013). I include instances of the former but not the latter though I do recognize that it may be the case that a renaming or rebranding may be accompanied by a complete overhaul of the business and organizational model (e.g. the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance).

As I mentioned, some of these organizations seem to be presenting organizations/venues which happen to produce opera. Some seem to be set up along the model of summer music camps or academies. I’ve yet to list operas which were “one off” productions, such as Dennis Báthory-Kitsz’s “Erzsébet.” Nor have I listed other organizations which have starte producing semi-staged operas such as the New York Phil’s recent performance of Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre.” While I understand that neither the NYP, nor Ligeti’s work are from this millennium, but that major symphonic organizations are starting to perform operas with more frequency might be something of a new trend.

Ultimately I’d want to chart all operatic activity in the US–and only in this way can we actually say how the field as a whole is doing. Since the running theme at this blog is that most discussions of the Classical Music Crisis deal with selectively picking out (usually) the large organizations which tend to get the lion’s share of (usually negative) media, having a sense of the whole field is a relatively good corrective. What would also be interesting, since most of these smaller and newer opera companies are not going through traditional ticketing venues (which can be tracked easily) is we might not know how big the aggregate audience is for opera overall. Most metrics based on big surveys seem show a decline in opera attendance overall, but it would be interesting to see if and how these newer companies are growing audiences.

Gotham Chamber Opera's performance of the U.S. Premiere Of Francesco Cavalli's 'Eliogabalo' Burlesque Opera
Gotham Chamber Opera’s performance of the U.S. Premiere Of Francesco Cavalli’s ‘Eliogabalo’ as a burlesque/baroque fusion.

I haven’t even begun looking at new companies around the world and the more I search and talk to people, the more I’m hearing about some of the spectacular, weird, cool new things happening globally in opera. Neither have I explored opera fusions and multimedia opera which are things that really interest me given all my activity in the experimental music world.

There are tons of other issues, but this post is not the place to explore them.  For now, I just want to thank all the folks who have pointed out groups I’ve missed, and who have mentioned any mistakes in the list, and of course, all the wonderful composers, directors, musicians, and vocalists of some of these newer and smaller opera groups that I’ve had the pleasure of working with or performing events with over the past year or so.  I’m looking forward to seeing all the changes to come!


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