Are There Too Few New Operas?: A Perspective

John_Conklin_American_Stage_DesignerReading an article in the Fall 2011 edition of  Opera America, written by John Conklin: the eminent American Stage Designer and recipient of the NEA Opera Honour in 2011,  I was struck by a comment made by Mr. Conklin that initially I thought was rather dubious in the face of generally far-reaching insight.

In the article, ‘The Artistic Exchange: Are You Prepared?’, Conklin muses,”In the American opera world generally, a dearth in the repertory of new opera and the seemingly obsessive dependence on the ‘standard’ repertory has led to loss of the sense of surprise, of a journey into unknown territory, of the excitement of discovery based on unexpected revelations of plot or character or idea.  We have so often lost one of the basic attractions and pulls of theater – an attraction and pull that seems to live on the surface but which can draw one deeper and deeper and lead one beneath the surface into whatever depths are appropriate and available.  And this pull is the simple storytelling question – “Whats going to happen next?””

What then, is so dubious?

“… a dearth in the repertory…” is the phrase that sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.  Opera America itself cites that over a 1000 new opera have been written in the last one hundred years, so how can there be a scarcity of new works?  Well, actually there is – and it’s a major shortage!  The situation is no better in Australia, but then again Opera Australia may have the world’s worst record in commissioning, supporting and giving repeat seasons of any of the minimal works they have ever commissioned, second only to the New York MET?

The problem is entirely systemic and predicated on the basic premise of why and for whom Opera exists?  When it comes right down to it, when only 2.1% of the population in the USA attends an opera performance, frankly it is serving only a very small part of the total number who attend a live theatre event.  Between 2007-08, North America’s professional opera companies presented 1,990 performances of 414 fully-staged main season and festival productions.  Compared to this, on Broadway with just 40 theatres, 12.7% of the population proportionally attended a production of 36 new productions over the same period: each statistically commensurate to playing for 43.3 weeks at approximately 8 performances per week.  Added to which, by further comparison, North American opera companies produced only 19 world premieres.  There is a dearth of new repertory!

If that doesn’t give you pause to reflect, I don’t know what does?

But here is the really interesting statistic: the percentage of adults viewing or listening to opera via broadcast and recorded media remains higher than live attendance (4.9%) – and that statistic is more than double those actually attending a production.

So where am I going with this you ask?  What may be inferred from even these simple statistics is that there is most definitely a market for Opera, but so much effort goes into developing new work for the Stage (and it is costly and time-consuming) but there is very little transference of this new work into the digital domain, and very few accessible distribution channels for these new works to reach a much broader audience.

Perhaps we have it the wrong way around – maybe new work should first live in the digital sphere and then find a home in the live domain?  A case in point:  André Previn’s masterful Brief Encounter, the composer/conductor’s second foray into opera after A Streetcar Named Desire, was only released by Deutsche Grammophon on May 24 of this year, but the original production from Houston Grand Opera took place in May 2009!  How can any opera, let alone Previn’s, find a broad, diverse audience when there is this huge lag, and when utilising the narrowest of distribution strategies?  Added to which, in this era of multi-modal, multi-platform delivery, the nicely packaged artifact comes on 2 CDs with a 92-page printed booklet.  Good grief DG, have you not heard of transmedia distribution strategies, or do just not want to sell too many pressings through lack of engagement from potential consumers?

So, John Conklin, not only are you a great Stage Designer worthy of the highest award the USA bestows in opera, but you also have clarified an issue that has been there for all to see for years, but perceived only now.

Thanks for dropping by.

Kevin

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