New operas in North Texas tackle controversial and timely subjects and feature jaw-dropping technology. But does all that bring in new audiences? Next Friday, Art&Seek presents a State of the Arts conversation called “Opera for Everyone” at the Kimbell Art Museum. KERA’s Anne Bothwell talked with Jerome Weeks, who hosts the panel, about the changing face of opera.
Anne: So Jerome, North Texas gets more than its fair share of new operas. Right now, TCU’s School of Music and the US Army Soldier’s Chorus are premiering a new opera, ‘The Falling and the Rising.’ It’s about wounded veterans trying to recover. What makes it special other than it’s new?
Jerome: TCU’s School of Music was involved in commissioning it, one of six companies [Correction: The story originally said TCU was involved in commissioning it, along with Fort Worth Opera. Actually, Darren Woods, the former general director of FWOpera, joined five other opera companies in commissioning it — but in his other role as the director of the Seagle Music Colony.] Commissioning new works is part of the School’s mission – new orchestral works, new chamber pieces. But this may well be its first opera. And although the US Army Soldier’s Chorus is involved, which makes it sound potentially huge, but it’s actually a small work, a one-act chamber opera – which means it’s cheaper, more likely to be picked up elsewhere, done more often in the future, get heard, maybe even become a part of the canon.
In fact, the performances at TCU are free – provided you reserve seats in advance.
David Gately leads TCU’s opera studio and he’s a member of next Friday’s panel. He explains that new operas attract new audiences. And that’s crucial.
It’s important to keep the art form alive. I mean, we can’t keep doing ‘La Boheme’ again and again and again. And the language of new opera has changed. When I first started, and you’d say ‘contemporary opera,’ you know, you were expecting an excruciating experience musically. That’s totally not true anymore. When you look at all these amazing composers — Jake Heggie or Mark Adamo or Zach – they write in a musical language that’s so accessible to an audience.
But this isn’t just a topical opera, it’s also based partly on a wounded vet – who’s actually in a coma. That’s got to be kind of different for an opera, and maybe even difficult for some people to watch.
Right. The music may be – for lack of better terms – accessible and melodic, but the topic is not so conventional. It’s drawn from interviews with real veterans. But that topicality, that immediacy, is another way opera companies are trying to hook audiences – to get more people to see beyond the stereotype of the large lady in a helmet singing German. There’s a wide, mostly untapped audience in America who are connected in some way to vets and their care. It’s obviously a deep concern for them.
Jonathan Eaton, who’s also on next week’s panel, is the director of UNT’s opera program.
Composers have to write for audiences, not just themselves. And certainly, a great masterpiece like ‘Marriage of Figaro’ is timeless and universal. But there are also topical things which we’re passionately concerned about. And I don’t think it’s narcissistic that we want to see stories and dramas about ourselves today.
So what other kinds of stories is he talking about?
Well, in addition to running UNT’s opera program, Eaton is the artistic director of the Pittsburgh Festival Opera. They commissioned what he calls the first ‘eco-opera.’ It was based on Rachel Carson, the author of ‘Silent Spring,’ which helped start the environmental movement. They’ve also premiered a ‘gospel opera’ based on a real police shooting.
Soooo … we’ve got operas about returning veterans, the environment, a police shooting –
— These are all topics are going to be of interest. These are not just operas about star-crossed lovers.
Right. Sometimes, it takes an opera to convey the intensity of such issues. But whether that timely relevance, whether that audience hook will still work in a decade is another question.
The operas still have to succeed musically and dramatically.
Of course. Meaning – you know, ‘only time will tell.’
But opera companies have been working to respond not just to what’s making news headlines but to long-term shifts in their audiences. For its new season starting this month, [tango music] Fort Worth Opera is presenting ‘Maria de Buenos Aires,’ the surreal tango opera from 1968 by tango legend Astor Piazzolla.
Tuomas Hiltunen is the new general director of Fort Worth Opera. He points out more than 60 percent of Fort Worth ISD students speak Spanish as their first language. Now, Spanish-language operas – performed with English super-titles – are certainly nothing new for Fort Worth Opera. But Hiltunen says there’s a change.
For Fort Worth Opera, it is important to perform for our local audience, not to just perform for an imaginary, international audience. We are now doing Spanish-language programming on the mainstage. It’s not an initiative anymore. It’s a permanent part of this company.
So those are just some of the changes in opera we’ll be discussing at our FREE public panel Friday.