The future of American opera finds its roots in the heartland
A trek to stages around the country reveals big change afoot -- and much of it happening away from the coasts.

Phoenix - "US AIRWAYS' Flight 450 to Salt Lake City has been canceled. All other aircraft are full until late Sunday or sometime Monday. Please see a ticket agent to reschedule your flight."

It's a Friday afternoon in February at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. A chorus of shocked gasps erupts. A woman with a Brooklyn accent sarcastically shrieks that the airline might as well rent her an apartment in the desert. With a pool! I'm changing planes, en route from St. Paul, Minn., to San Francisco, both cities offering opera premieres. And this diva scene is a not-uncommon prologue to the brave new world of new American opera, because if you want to find out what is happening, you have to take to the skies.

For all the attention being lavished on the innovations at New York's Metropolitan Opera and the ones expected at its Lincoln Center neighbor, New York City Opera, there is, right now, no center to American opera.

Following the opera trail the last two months has involved entering a surrealist sinkhole at Oberlin College in Ohio. I encountered an operatic Abu Ghraib in Austin, Texas, and the spirit of a Ponca Indian chief in Omaha. In St. Paul, Minn., the ultimate bummer road trip was illuminated in delicious if heart-rending song. In a small avant-garde space in San Francisco, a teenage Julius Caesar, taking a respite from his young wife and infant child, learned the ways of a ruler in the bed of an older lover, Nicomedes, king of Bithynia, to the accompaniment of exquisite percussion in the pit.

Each of these new works had something relevant to say politically or socially, though their musical and theatrical styles were radically different. Tradition was respected or overthrown.

Classics were reinvented or ignored. Resources varied from a lot to a little. Inspiration came from all over the place.

But what Olga Neuwirth's "Lost Highway," Philip Glass' "Waiting for the Barbarians," Anthony Davis' "Wakonda's Dream," Ricky Ian Gordon's "The Grapes of Wrath" and Lou Harrison's "Young Caesar" had in common were enthusiastic audiences and a sense that opera is an ever-evolving art form that can take on just about anything. The circumstances of these five premieres varied greatly. "Waiting for the Barbarians" was commissioned for a new opera house in Erfurt, Germany, and came to Austin only after it was rejected elsewhere in America. "The Grapes of Wrath," given its premiere by Minnesota Opera, was a co-commission and co-production with several other U.S. companies, allowing for a good-sized budget and a number of presentations. "Lost Highway" and "Young Caesar" were ambitious projects by, respectively, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. "Wakonda's Dream" was a local initiative by Omaha Opera.

What these works also had in common is that they were created apart from the country's big opera operations: the massive Metropolitan and the other major outfits in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and New York. Everyone, of course, seeks something new these days. But big-city big budgets often bring compromises.

Last spring, for example, Los Angeles Opera emptied its coffers on Elliot Goldenthal's "Grendel." It had director Julie Taymor's great stage pictures but a malfunctioning milliondollar movable rock that held up its opening by several days. Audiences loved the show, although the score got little attention. The opera made no attempt to go beyond a literal retelling of John Gardner's novel about the monster in "Beowulf"; the curmudgeonly cutting edge had to be cut back.

The Met, for its part, spent a bundle last winter on "The First Emperor," Tan Dun's epic account of Qin Shi Huang, who unified China two millenniums ago. In this case, excess was everywhere - in celebrated Chinese film director Zhang Yimou's spectacular massing of the chorus onstage and in Tan's struggle to translate dozens of Eastern and Western operatic traditions into a stylistically benign vehicle suitable for Plácido Domingo.

Just how much imagination a large opera house can accept is hard to quantify. Peter Gelb, now in his first season as general manager of the Met, is full of bright ideas. He has invited directors from Broadway and Hollywood, is broadcasting productions in high-definition video at movie theaters and has commissioned Osvaldo Golijov to write an opera (which will require untold years to complete).

Set to rattle the status quo
BUT the recent announcement that Gerard Mortier would take over New York City Opera in 2009 appears to signal a greater shake-up for American opera. Mortier, who heads the Paris National Opera, is famous for his daring revamping of Austria's Salzburg Festival. He succeeded Herbert von Karajan there in 1992 and shocked conservative audiences with audacious Peter Sellars and Robert Wilson stagings along with a healthy dose of new work - some of it by Luciano Berio, Kaija Saariaho and Glass - of lasting value.

In a phone conversation the other day from Paris, Mortier implied that what New York needs is to spend more on less. He wants to concentrate on only eight or nine productions. And he believes that each should be something special. He's all for getting out into the world, which means sometimes forsaking the company's acoustically dead home, the New York State Theater, for projects at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater or collaborations with the Juilliard School.

Still, this vision has already been realized in a limited way at the smaller companies I've visited this year. Certainly what I discovered was that conventional wisdom is opera's greatest enemy. Anything goes, but that doesn't mean you can do anything you want.

It is easy, for instance, to reject the trend of turning major works of American literature, particularly those best known through classic film adaptations, into opera. Andre Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire" and John Harbison's "The Great Gatsby" include good music but struggle to hold the stage. Tobias Picker's "An American Tragedy" proved a dud at the Met last season.

Nor do film and Broadway directors necessarily bring anything fresh to the lyric stage.

Zhang's slapdash dramatization of the "The First Emperor" had only a touch of the splendor of his latest feature, "Curse of the Golden Flower." John Doyle's trivial production of "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" at L.A. Opera failed to live up to his innovative "Sweeney Todd" and "Company" stagings on Broadway.

With all that in mind, I held out little hope for "The Grapes of Wrath." Gordon can be a lightweight, if agreeable, songsmith. The director, Eric Simonson, had among his credits an Academy Award for a short documentary. Yet everything worked. Michael Korie wrote a libretto more or less faithful to Steinbeck but with original language and a focus on characters, not situations. Gordon composed music true to his own emotive personal voice. The staging was not silly.

Grant Gershon conducted a brilliantly cohesive performance. Young American singers demonstrated a commitment to score and staging alike.

A potent political message resonates through Steinbeck's novel, and Minnesota Opera did not shirk from communicating it. Though the story was not updated, the production and Gordon's catchy music had a well-heeled audience practically singing along to anti-capitalist tirades more typical of college students.

The lesson for opera companies is, "Don't underestimate your audience."

In Austin, a mile from where George W. Bush's portrait hangs in the rotunda of the state Capitol, a provocative production of "Waiting for the Barbarians" employed the imagery of Abu Ghraib. But the opera, which is based on Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee's 1980 novel about abuse of political prisoners, received a bipartisan standing ovation on opening night, a gala that included many legislators in the audience.

Where "The First Emperor" is a period epic based on a silly film ("The Emperor's Shadow"), Harrison's "Young Caesar" is real history and 10 times more shocking for it. Former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley had no defenders of his relations with congressional pages. Yet here is an opera that paints the liaison between a king and a young Roman acolyte in the most sensually alluring way imaginable, and as a genuinely humanizing event in Caesar's life.

Is basing an opera on a movie a cheap trick? It can be, and that issue is likely to be on our minds a lot, what with the number of such adaptations in the works. Howard Shore's "The Fly," for one, is scheduled to reach L.A. Opera next year.

But though Neuwirth's "Lost Highway" has a libretto by Elfriede Jelinek that's practically a précis of the screenplay for David Lynch's strange film, it is an expertly made skeleton on which the young Austrian composer was able to hang a score of spooky, unforgettable intensity.

The role of librettists is also difficult to generalize about. Tan turned to poet, novelist and short story writer Ha Jin, an eloquent National Book Award winner. But he gave him a clunky plot and got a stilted libretto in return. Jelinek, a Nobel laureate, brought no texture to "Highway," but her surgical skill proved the extraordinary right thing. Christopher Hampton's prosaic "Barbarians" libretto, on the other hand, weakened the source material.

Omaha took a chance on Yusef Komunyakaa, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, for "Wakonda's Dream." He unfortunately had to tone down his richly contextualized verse style to help move the narrative along, but he still added substance and beauty to a work about the Native American experience of confronting your spiritual heritage.

The lesson here is an obvious one: Don't straitjacket great writers. Simply trust them.

The most important lesson from this year's raft of new operas, though, should be the most obvious: They require loving care. Conservatories provide that as a matter of course, and thanks are due to Oberlin for "Lost Highway" and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for "Young Caesar," which will be repeated at UC Santa Cruz on Tuesday. But schools can do only so much. "Young Caesar" received a campy staging and a not always adequate performance. Oberlin was forced to simplify Neuwirth's score, and the student performers' inexperience showed. All the same, now we know: These are operas ready for the main stage.

Raising the stakes nationwide
ULTIMATELY, there may be just so much the big companies can and will do. Opera now is everywhere and enjoys the largest, most diverse audience the art form has ever known. Predictions are that Mortier will up the ante at Lincoln Center and force the Met to go further than it might otherwise. In fact, he will probably up the ante throughout operatic America and particularly for L.A. Opera, which has lately enjoyed a reputation as an innovator and the most Wilson-friendly company in the country. Without some further fresh ideas locally, though, our stock could fall.

All the same, Mortier claimed that being a rival to the Met or the other big U.S. houses is not his intention. "I have done the big machine," he said, allowing that he looks forward to not having to make opera in a political context, as he must in Paris, where one interest group or another always seems on strike. He said he hopes to make Sellars his right-hand man in New York, with Wilson on his left.

Mortier also cautioned against over-interpreting his taste for controversy. "People know me as the man with very exciting stagings," he said, "but the music has always been more important to me." His first priority for City Opera will be increasing the size of the orchestra and not doubling but tripling the number of rehearsals. Without those steps, he insisted, he can't do anything.

Plus, Mortier contended that working in countries where the government pays the bills isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Politicians come and go, but if you cultivate private donors, they become long-term friends you can count on.

What Mortier must do, clearly, is turn New York into a small town, create a community that supports opera. If he succeeds, the city will no doubt once more become a center for adventurous work.

But he shouldn't expect companies elsewhere not to compete. In the best of all possible worlds, we'll all be Omaha, Austin and St. Paul at their best.
- Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, 31 March 2007