Can Engaging with Contemporary Social Issues Save the Opera?

Singers, musicians, set designers and builders, writers and producers are seeking new ways to connect opera to modern-day audiences and issues.

The “Mile-Long Opera,” an open-air performance along the High Line in New York City, recruited a thousand singers from local choirs. (Photo by Timothy  Schenck)

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The dress rehearsal for the opera “Idomeneo” was set for Oct. 10, at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. The voices were in fine form and the set, adorned with a two-story relief sculpture, was impressive. (Full disclosure: This reporter was also a part of this opera, in a non-singing supernumerary, or extra, role.)

It was business as usual, until the Lyric orchestra went on strike on Oct. 9, after the Chicago Federation of Musicians rejected a new contract that included a pay cut, shorter performance season, and the loss of five jobs. The walkout shuttered “Idomeneo” and a concurrent run of “La Bohème.”

By Oct. 15, the musicians had settled the strike (securing a modest raise, 5 more weeks in the 2019-2020 season, and a few other concessions), and performances were back on. Yet the concerns that provoked the strike remained — at least as Lyric Opera CEO Anthony Freud saw it.

“It’s a national trend that opera performances are harder and more expensive to sell than they ever have been,” Freud told the Chicago Tribune. “We’re scheduling the maximum number of opera performances we believe we can sell.” Other commentators echoed him, saying that public interest in stuffy, intimidating, expensive opera is inevitably dwindling.

That might be true, but several recent opera productions suggest that interest in a new kind of urban, less formally-staged, socially-engaged opera is emerging and drawing in new audiences to the centuries-old art form — although financial aspects remain challenging, just as Freud said.

This October, audiences in New York had the option of walking through “The Mile-Long Opera,” an open-air production staged on the High Line, the famous 1.45-mile elevated park in Manhattan.

“We wanted to respond to our own challenge of how to bring opera out of the theater into public space,” says Matthew Johnson, a principal at the architectural firm that helped bring “The Mile-Long Opera” into being.

The production recruited a thousand singers from many local choirs. Each stood at a spot on the High Line while the audience walked freely past and sang or spoke about tasks that New Yorkers do at 7 in the evening. The result was a complex mixture rather than a single story.

“The work was conceived as a collection of impressions sourced from many New York stories that speak, each in their own ways, to the effects of rapid urban change [and] provide space to reflect on your own relationship to the city,” says Johnson.

An estimated fifteen thousand people attended “The Mile Long Opera.”

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, opera is taking an even more socially-engaged turn. From Oct. 24 to 27, a group at University of California San Diego mounted “Inheritance,” a new opera about Sarah Winchester, inheritor of the Winchester rifle company fortune and owner of a house said to be haunted by people killed with that brand of firearms.

Producer Susan Narucki says the idea was “to try to find a way to have the past speak to the present” by juxtaposing scenes from Winchester’s life with those of a modern school shooting. Co-creators Narucki, Lei Liang, Ligia Bouton, and Matt Donovan aimed for what she called “work that can be very disturbing and very provocative” to communicate horror at gun violence.

“It’s not the same thing as going to the Met,” Narucki says about the spectator experience, describing an intergenerational audience with “a lot of people who I don’t think have been to the opera before.” Although the formal program extended no farther than the opera itself, Narucki notes that “people stayed afterward in the performance space for about an hour to talk … They didn’t want to leave.”

“Inheritance” is the second opera Narucki has helped create at UCSD. The first, 2017’s “Cuatro Corridos,” was an opera for which she performed the lead roles in four vignettes anchored by “corridos,” songs in a particular Mexican folk style. The scenes depicted a series of perspectives on sex trafficking and sexual slavery — an issue of particular significance in San Diego, where many women trafficked from Tijuana cross the border.

Liang, who also composed one section of “Cuatro Corridos,” describes her aspiration to work with “issues that matter today, issues that are difficult to deal with, urgent and challenging.”

UCSD also arranged public forums before and after performances of “Cuatro Corridos” with public health, law enforcement, and other professionals, “so people could learn something about the reality of this issue and what they could do,” Narucki says.

All three of these productions share a throwback trait: they are original productions. From its emergence around 1500 till around 1850, a constant churn of new operas was normal. But these days, original opera productions have all but disappeared.

In their 2012 tome “A History of the Opera,” historians Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker explain that it’s “simple economics, the fearful expense involved in inventing and producing an opera.” Throughout its history, the genre has almost always needed subsidies by elite benefactors or public funds. Scarcity of either has made retreads of beloved classics, not new works, the option most opera houses default to.

“Inheritance” co-creator Ligia Bouton points out that using non-traditional spaces, such as university auditoriums or the open air, was part of what made these new productions feasible: “Designated [performance] spaces are becoming harder to sustain, and artists are looking for ways to get their work out there.”

Beyond that, the funding approaches all three programs used were like those of traditional venues. “Cuatro Corridos” relied on grants and university support to ease production costs. The show itself was also modestly staged, with a one-woman cast, chamber musicians instead of a full orchestra, and a simple set.

In contrast, “The Mile-Long Opera” was a 1000-singer extravaganza — but it, too, relied on donor support. A long list of organizations and individuals augmented the support of “presenting sponsor” Target Corporation, thereby permitting spectators to attend for free.

“Inheritance” also emphasized low ticket prices. (“Otherwise, people wouldn’t have access to it,” Narucki says.) The show received grants from Creative Capital, the National Endowment for the Arts, and New Music USA, plus several individual donations, which made up 65 to 70 percent of total funding.

Interestingly, the grandly staged canonical productions at the Lyric Opera draw a similar portion of their revenue from audiences. In the 12 months ending June 30, 2017 (the most recent for which annual reports are available), $26.9 million of the Lyric’s $84.5 million operating budget came from ticket sales. The other 68 percent was covered by other revenue streams, donations, and sponsorships — about the same proportions as that of “Inheritance.”

It may be that those shows are harder to sell than ever, as Freud said. But perhaps, as traditional opera falters, new opera is rising.

In the end, neither appears entirely hopeless. More than 250,000 people attended a Lyric Opera performance in 2016-2017 — and from the viewpoint of my first curtain call for “Idomeneo,” it appeared that that production, despite the disruption of the strike, enjoyed a full house.

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M. Sophia Newman is a freelance writer and an editor with a substantial background in global health and health research. She wrote Next City's Health Horizons column from 2015 to 2016 and has reported from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and the United States on a wide range of topics. See more at​

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