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Posted by on Jul 7, 2010 in Articles | 1 comment

The State of American Opera and its Singers?

The State of American Opera and its Singers?

by Erica Papillion-Posey

We often hear the distinction made between types of opera singers. I am not speaking categorically where ‘fach’ is concerned but nationality. “Oh, she/ he is an Italian, a French, a German or an American opera singer” etc. etc.

There were periods in operatic history where depending on the part of the world you were from could determine ‘your start.’ Your pedigree or seriousness as a viable emerging artist could be riding on your countries reputation for producting well groomed pipes! American’s were/are no different. But what is the current state of American opera and it’s singers?

Current Washington Post writer and music critic extraordinare Anne Midgette answers these and others questions surrounding the issue in the 2005 article from The Opera Quarterly entitled “The Voice of American Opera.”  Midgette considers the archetypal American opera singer and their influences on opera around the world and the American opera genre. She also delves in to their training, attitudes, performance, vocalism, singing, and other related topics. Agreeable to its content or not, it’s a fabulous read and one I am sure will give both newer and more experienced singers, alike, valuable insight in to the current state of the ‘American opera experience’….

 

The Voice of American Opera
by Anne Midgette

Anne Midgette, journalist and music critic  photo: Matthew Warden

Anne Midgette, journalist and music critic photo: Matthew Warden

American opera-so the public-relations machine would have it-is thriving. American composers are turning out new works at a prodigious rate. And there are more opera companies than ever before to produce them.

But the definition of “American opera” remains vague at best. Does it mean new works by American composers, on American subjects; or is it understood as a general term for the business of producing and supporting opera in this country? Furthermore, it is difficult to credibly apply the adjective “thriving” to a field that appears to be struggling on the margins of a culture that has little interest in it.

American opera, healthy or not, has been struggling to figure out its identity for much of its existence: at least, let’s say, since 1910, when the Metropolitan Opera, America’s leading house, offered the world premiere of what many would call an American opera, Puccini’s Wild West extravaganza La fanciulla del West. (The “all-American” cast included Enrico Caruso, Emmy Destinn, and Pasquale Amato, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.) The Met did go on to stage a new work nearly every year for the next decade, some by American composers (Shanewis, by Charles Wakefield Cadman); most of them are forgotten.

But there is no question about one element of American opera’s identity: the American opera singer. Particularly in the years since World War II, the American singer has been American opera’s most recognizable export. Renowned for their good vocal training, flexibility, stage presence, and chameleon-like adaptability, American singers were already playing a prominent role on European stages at a time when the prevailing attitude at American houses like the Met appeared to be, in the words of the American soprano Beverly Sills, “If your name was pronounceable, how could you be a good opera singer?” But at the New York City Opera at home, and at houses of all sizes abroad, particularly in the opera-producing machine of Germany, American singers established themselves as a vocal force to be reckoned with.

One result of this is that American opera singers have effectively set the agenda for the less self-assured quantity of American opera for a number of decades. Opera always tends to reflect the voices of its day, although there is a chicken-and-egg imponderability to the question of which comes first, the voice or the opera that fits it. (On the one hand, Handel tailored roles to the exact measure of his singers; on the other, Verdi and Wagner basically created new vocal types-the Verdi mezzo, the Wagnerian soprano-to which singers still try to conform today.) Still, the vocal ideals of a particular period always play a role in understanding the opera written in that period.

It is striking that in the 1960s, when the concept of the American opera singer was coming into its own, American opera appeared to be, as well. In the late fifties and early sixties, City Opera, a company built around young, primarily American singers, staged five entire seasons of new American and/or twentiethcentury operas: works by Thomas Pasatieri, Carlisle Floyd, Douglas Moore, Robert Ward, and others.

Recent research, however, suggests that American opera singers are not what they once were. American vocal training appears, on the evidence of dozens of interviews gathered around the country in 2005, to be in a kind of crisis. And the way that American singers and American vocal training have evolved, or devolved, is reflected to no small extent in the current state of American opera.

Examine, again, the term “American opera” and you will find an oxymoron. Opera isn’t American at all-a foreign import, it has sought its identity in this country on whatever terms it can cobble together. The elements that make it “American” are so various as to be meaningless in aggregate: “American” might indicate the nationality or predilections of the stage director (Peter Sellars setting Così fan tutte in a fifties-era diner), the nationality of the composer (John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, based in eighteenth-century France), the choice of an American source as subject matter (the expat British composer Nicholas Maw setting William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice), or a direct appeal to a particular ethnic community (Anthony Davis’s Wakonda’s Dream for Opera Omaha, based on a local Native American story).

And while “American opera” very much wants to be “American,” it evidently doesn’t want to be “opera.” “Music theater” is the term preferred by many composers. Even opera houses are increasingly trying to eliminate the word “opera” from their advertising, since the culture at large tends to understand “opera” as something elitist, exalted, and boring. In an interview for an article in the New York Times, Kevin Smith, president and CEO of the Minnesota Opera, described planning the advertising for his company’s 2003 production of an opera by the Danish composer Poul Ruders. “Let’s just say that it’s a theatricalization of The Handmaid’s Tale,” he said. “Once you say it’s an opera, people get scared.” (This was a North American opera: Atwood is Canadian.)

Despite the fuzziness of the definition of “American opera,” opera houses in the United States are increasingly focused on establishing and promoting this uncertain entity. “The [Carlisle] Floyd works and [Scott Joplin's] Treemonisha and [Gershwin's] Porgy and Bess kind of gave me a sense of the mission of the company,” said David Gockley, the former head of the Houston Grand Opera, “and that was to legitimize and extend the American repertoire.” Gockley, to be sure, has been a particular champion of American opera for years (he is now the general director of the San Francisco Opera), but his torch is increasingly being taken up by heads of other companies who want to connect what they’re doing on stage with their own country and their own audiences. Even a partial list of new and recent operas staged or in planning since the 2005-2006 season is impressive. Theaters in the countries where opera actually originated-Italy, Germany, France-are somewhat less focused on the national identity of new work. The concepts of “German opera” or “Italian opera” need no defending: they already exist. (Though when the British Sir Peter Jonas took over as Intendant of the Bavarian State Opera, he was so anxious that his first commission be a German opera that he insisted that the German composer Hans-Ju?rgen von Bose give his operatic setting of a Kurt Vonnegut novel a German title: it was premiered in 1996 as Schlachthof.)

Beyond the sociopolitical connotations of the term, there’s another definition of “American opera” that has to do with its functional manifestations. “This has been the decade of new American opera,” wrote a New York Times critic reviewing yet another world premiere. He noted that the piece he was reviewing had quite a bit in common with the new opera he had reviewed two weeks previously: “a harmonic idiom based on nineteenth-century procedures-a completely nondissonant language . . . This is interesting, and more than coincidence. It is indicative of the current neo-romantic trend in composition. It would also appear that this particular revival seems to be an American phenomenon. Certainly none of the young composers of Europe would think of setting a libretto with the conventional harmonies that [this composer] has used.” The year was 1961, and Harold Schonberg was reviewing Robert Ward’s opera The Crucible (comparing it to Douglas Moore’s The Wings of the Dove). But his description could as well apply to countless new works: Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner, William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge. In short, for the last forty-five years “American opera,” despite some striking exceptions, has tended to be artistically and musically conservative.

The definition of the American opera singer is considerably more straightforward. And the American opera singer is considerably more popular. It’s long been a truism that American vocal training is the best in the world, producing versatile, stage-ready singers able to perform a wide variety of styles in a wide variety of languages. This, at least, is the stereotype that prevailed for many years, starting soon after World War II when Europe (Germany in particular) had a lot of opera houses and a dearth of trained singers to perform in them. The conservatories were in a shambles, and many teachers had fled to America (another reason often given for the superiority of American training). Young Americans took to the form well, but had relatively few performance opportunities: the perception was that they were hungrier for work, and better prepared to take it on, than products of the European music schools. In 1992, in an interview for the magazine Opera News, Klaus Schulz, who has been Intendant of the opera in Mannheim and of Munich’s Staatstheater am Ga?rtnerplatz, summed up what was then the conventional wisdom in Germany, where hundreds of American singers used to flock every year. “American training is more oriented toward actual practice,” he said, “and it’s much harder. There’s a preselection process that takes place before singers even enter the German [theater] system, because they’ve had to work so much harder in America. That doesn’t exist in Germany.”

But the landscape has gradually been changing. Germany’s theaters no longer have the virtually unlimited resources they seemed to through the 1990s, when singers were routinely hired for year-round contracts at decent salaries with full benefits. Conservatory training in Europe has improved; the students there have gotten hungrier, too. And there are other reasons for American singers to stay home. An entire industry has grown up in their own country to produce and support them. The number of opera companies in the United States has risen steadily (it has more than doubled since 1970); new apprentice programs have sprung up to provide young professionals with stage experience they once had to seek abroad; and voice departments have become not only a cash cow for conservatories, but a source of steady employment for many singers (since opera, even for a successful performer, is generally a freelance business). As a result, the United States is producing more singers than ever-but the growth of the system may have diluted the level of training. Certainly the aural evidence gleaned at current City Opera productions, debut vocal recitals, the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions, and other venues does not support the hypothesis that America is producing a new generation of vocal superstars.

Concepts of singing are continually evolving over time. But there is no question that the most important single factor in shaping the vocal ideal we have today is recording. The advent and ubiquity of this medium have played a huge role in the evolution of our culture’s expectation of all acoustic sound-not only voices. One significance of this for opera is that recording is notoriously bad at fully conveying the power of a large human voice. From the earliest days of recording, eyewitnesses (or earwitnesses) have complained that the full impact of the big voices-Rosa Ponselle, Enrico Caruso, Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson- didn’t come across on their recordings. All you get, say people who heard them live, is a sense of their greatness, a small percentage of their power. What’s missing is exactly the particular character that has long made live opera thrilling. The more recordable voices are the lighter ones, and while the artistry and interest of a smaller voice are not a priori any less than those of a large one, the full spectrum of vocal possibility-and the sense of opera’s visceral excitement-is gradually being lost.

Recording has also changed the function of music and given classical music a new role. For many, it has become something pretty and/or relaxing that you listen to during brunch, or on your car radio. Traditional opera vocalism of the full-bodied, fat-lady-sings type is fundamentally at odds with this role. In fact, one reason opera is off-putting to many people is that it demands a kind of concentration and emotional involvement that are not at all in accordance with the widespread function of music as a background to daily life. In an Opera News review of a set of Leontyne Price recordings, Steven Blier recommended that one not operate heavy machinery while listening to this music. Brunch fare it’s not. The area of so-called classical music that has been ascendant for several decades is early music, which represents an aesthetic more sympathetic to modern ears.

All of this is directly reflected in the way singers sound today. The biggest American opera stars of today don’t have huge voices and don’t shine in the mainstream nineteenth-century operatic repertory. Renée Fleming is at home in Mozart and Strauss, Dvorák’s Rusalka or Handel’s Rodelinda, but even bel canto finds her clearly out of her comfort zone. Thomas Hampson has made his biggest mark as a Lieder singer, although his voice has darkened and deepened over the years. And that Deborah Voigt is considered a Wagner soprano is a fine example of the ongoing downscaling of vocal expectations. Hers is a lovely voice, but it has never had the weight or heft of great Wagnerians of the past, like Flagstad and Nilsson or, if we are considering Americans alone, Helen Traubel and Astrid Varnay.5

This is not to imply for a minute that any of these singers could have larger voices or be singing a different repertory had they had different training: the point of proper training is to discover the distinct qualities of a particular voice and help develop them. But it is notable that these are the models of vocal sound for the next generation. Meanwhile, proper training is exactly what isn’t happening for many young singers today. Increasingly, voice students are subjected to a cookie-cutter process designed to produce a certain kind of singer, following a template that is increasingly based on recordings and on the exigencies of a system designed in part to sustain itself.

In a recent article I wrote for the New York Times, I outlined some of the problems of the American training system as it exists today.6 Two things surprised me: first, that in more than forty interviews with singers, teachers, and administrators around the country, the same complaints kept emerging over and over; and second, that this article proved to have by far the most resonance of anything I have written in eight years of Times pieces. Clearly, it hit a nerve-which I take as indicating that people do, indeed, perceive a problem.

It starts with the conservatory, where a young singer gets one voice lesson a week amid a thousand other obligations (diction, chorus, theory, academics, working to help pay tuition). Everyone agrees that a lesson a week is not enough to communicate the fundamentals in the way they need to be communicated. (Conventional wisdom has it that Golden-Age singers had lessons every day; certainly even singers of more recent vintage worked with their teachers several times a week during their formative years.)

Then there’s the question of who’s doing the teaching. The conservatory system is self-perpetuating: the system hires graduates of the system. But an academic degree, the requisite credential for a teaching job, is no guarantee of vocal ability. A teacher may not have had a chance to formulate his or her ideas of sound in any arena apart from the practice studio or recordings. And it is often hard for nonsingers (who might be doing the hiring) to evaluate a teacher’s ability. While there are fairly objective standards to measure the performance of a pianist, the voice remains a mysterious other: there appear to be no standard criteria for what constitutes a good one, and there is little control over how teachers create it. The problem is compounded by the fact that voice students arrive at conservatory far greener than instrumentalists the same age: an eighteen-year-old pianist may already have a professional career, while an eighteen-year-old singer may have done a few roles in high school musicals. Their inexperience renders voice students especially vulnerable to bad teaching; they often have no way to tell the difference.

And it’s hard to work when you’re not sure what you’re working for. By default, the goals come to resemble a checklist: shoulders back, tongue down, ears wiggled, or whatever the magic formulae of a particular teacher may be (voice training is notorious for generating pedagogic gobbledygook), while making sure your diction is perfect, even if you’re not quite sure what you’re saying.7 The most concrete goal, again by default, is to get a foothold on the next rung of the career ladder: an apprentice or young-artist program. One function of these programs, for the companies that run them, is to provide a pool of singers who can be cast in small onstage roles: the singers get stage experience, the companies fill slots, and everyone is happy. But this means that the singers most likely to be accepted to these programs are those with a certain degree of stagereadiness, whose voices will fit well in smaller parts. My Times article specifically focused on big voices and the difficulty they had in a system that emphasizes product and polish. A voice that is distinctive, that sticks out, that takes longer to mature, is often not encouraged, even though a distinctive, large, striking voice might seem to be the epitome of what an opera singer ought to want.

Ironically, it’s the very self-awareness of the importance of the American opera singer that has fueled the growth of a system that emphasizes the qualities traditionally associated with American singers-flexibility, agility, stage presence-more explicitly than it does vocal excellence or vocal excitement. The focus today is less on pure vocalism than on its applications. And if vocal opulence is no longer a value in voice training, one can hardly expect it to be one in the operas being written for the voices that are the product of that training.

“There’s a tendency in opera today to confuse the aesthetic and the utilitarian object,” said the composer Jorge Martin in another Times interview. His statement is relevant to the entire American opera system: practical or functional considerations often take precedence over the inherent quality of the product. Once upon a time, a theater would work to develop a young singer before launching her (Bruno Walter coached Regina Resnik three times a week for two months before she did her first Fidelio at the Met); once, a theater would wait to present an opera like Norma until it had the right singers for the roles; once, new opera was staged because it was vital and exciting (think Puccini’s Fanciulla). Today, the system may bypass a promising young talent in favor of someone who seems ready to go, singers are slotted into roles that may not ideally fit them (as plenty of recent Normas demonstrate), and new opera is part of a theater’s mandate, staged for a range of reasons-we need a new work to celebrate our anniversary, we have grant money to do it-that don’t always involve the idea that a composer has written an exciting piece that a theater director deeply believes needs to be heard.

For composers, this confusion of the utilitarian and the aesthetic is not surprising, since the very definition of “opera” has become institutionalized. That is, “opera” is defined as something performed in an opera house and is only thus to be distinguished from “music theater” or “musical theater” (the latter is widely taken to indicate Broadway fare; the former has more highbrow connotations), which are not. This distinction is indeed practical: in fact, it is primarily economic. An opera composer is paid a set and often handsome fee to create a piece of work that will be performed just as he writes it and will receive a fixed number of performances. The composer of a music theater work may have to tailor and adjust a piece right up to opening night, throwing out whole numbers if they don’t appear to be working and writing new music on the spot, and he has no guarantee of a salary or a specific length of a run. If the piece is a hit, he makes money; if not, he’s out of luck.

But there is an artistic aspect to the distinction as well, for “opera” can also be defined as “something performed by opera singers.” And the way that opera composers perceive that distinction explains a lot about the role that singers and vocal training play in defining American opera today.

Michael Torke, who wrote Strawberry Fields (one section of the Glimmerglass/ New York City Opera’s 1999 trilogy Central Park), and who is one of several composers commissioned to develop new work for the embryonic partnership between the Met and the Lincoln Center Theater, outlined the differences between opera and musical theater. “Opera singers sing in head voice,” he said, “and you can’t understand the words. The text of the libretto repeats over and over, and you get the gist of it. Broadway-I’ll just use the term to mean ‘musicals’-is the opposite. It’s all about the words; you can’t repeat like that.” But he saw himself as a convert to opera after writing Strawberry Fields. “You listen to the singers wailing away,” he said, laughing, “and it’s almost as good as musical theater.”

Torke is a smart, talented composer, and his perception of the difference between opera singers and other singers reflects that of many of his colleagues- which is exactly the problem. For one thing, the distinction he makes would have been meaningless a generation or two ago. His remarks are based on the implicit assumption that the functional difference between opera singing and Broadway singing is the use or absence of a microphone. And indeed, to many, that’s all it comes down to. The division is reinforced by classical purists who see amplification as anathema: the whole point of the classical vocal technique is to enable a voice to be heard without it. The appreciation of the distinct qualities of the classical tradition is at best blunted, at worst eradicated by the aggressive leveling of the playing field that a microphone represents. Even small voices can be raised to a deafening blare, and telltale signs of indifferent technique-poor breath support, bad phrasing or intonation-are obliterated. Amplification ruined Broadway-so continues the conventional wisdom of the purists-and it’s now threatening opera.

It’s certainly true that before the 1960′s, vocalism on Broadway-unmiked- was of a very different order. And the boundary between opera and musical theater was therefore more, rather than less, porous. A good number of works that are now considered classic American operas originated on Broadway: Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, Blitzstein’s Regina, Menotti’s The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, to name a few. Singers also moved from one stage to another: Ezio Pinza, Lawrence Tibbett, and Robert Weede were all trained, successful opera singers who had significant Broadway runs. Today, amusingly, composers perceive themselves as being more open to musical theater influences than their predecessors, and yet the barrier between the forms is far more solid. When Baz Luhrmann staged Puccini’s La Bohème on Broadway in 2002, the classical critical fraternity rose up against it because of the amplification issue, even though the production was respectful of the opera, used decent young opera singers, and was tremendously effective dramatically. The result was to underscore the divide between opera and Broadway and reiterate the idea that opera is somehow morally superior to Broadway trash: a fine way to turn off a potential new audience that might have been drawn to opera by their enjoyment of the production.

But the real point is that when composers perceive the distinction between Broadway and operatic voices as lying simply in the fact that one is amplified and one is not, they are not really understanding the role of the voice in opera. And when they perceive the difference between opera and music theater as hinging on the location of a given work’s performance, they are failing to examine exactly what makes musical drama, of any stripe, tick.

“One of the most galling things to me is the assumption that an opera can be anything you want it to be,” said Dominick Argento, the composer of Postcard from Morocco (1971), Miss Havisham’s Fire (1979), and other operas. “People really feel that an opera only has to be a story with continuous music. There’s more to it than that. I don’t mean it has to be traditional music numbers, but it has to be more than background music to underscore a dramatic story.”

The ignorance proceeds in part from a basic lack in another aspect of operatic training: the training of opera composers. Students studying composition today tend to have little exposure to any of the classics, never mind traditional opera. A composer can move all the way through an undergraduate and graduate program and hardly touch on the core repertory that’s performed in the nation’s opera houses and symphony halls. If the influence of Broadway is increasing in contemporary opera, it may be in part simply a result of people drawing on what they know.

“It’s not uncommon to ask a composer who’s never written an opera to write an opera,” said Philip Glass, who has written more than twenty of them. “It’s like saying, ‘Hey Joe, you’re a pretty good gardener; would you like to paint my house?’ ‘Well, I’ve never painted a house before, but I’ve been around houses; I’ll give it a try.’ Writing operas takes a lifetime to learn. It’s a métier.”

And as newcomers to the opera learn what it means to write one, vocalism is not what’s leading the way. For one thing, new works are very seldom written for the top singers at an opera company, in part because you can’t always find singers willing to take on uncertain new parts. For another thing, new works are seldom written for a company’s main stage at all. Since opera is so expensive to put on, taking a risk on a contemporary composer is an expensive gamble. Even John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, perhaps the greatest popular success of any new American opera written in the last thirty or forty years, has never gotten a second full-scale production (though the Met did revive it four years after its 1991 premiere, and is finally planning a major revival in 2010). Calling for a huge cast and chorus, full orchestra, and elaborate set, it’s big and expensive. (A slightly scaled-down version of the opera was performed in Chicago and Hannover.)

A lot of new opera, therefore, is written for apprentice programs, workshops, and music schools. Mark Adamo’s Little Women was written for the small-scale forces of the Houston Grand Opera Studio: light young voices and a twenty-piece orchestra. It has been certainly the most-performed new work of the last two decades: it has had more than thirty productions. Popular appeal alone doesn’t account for an opera’s recurrence: the administrators who plan a season also have to keep financial concerns in mind, and Little Women has the obvious advantages of audience appeal (stemming from the subject matter) mingled with relative economy. (Similarly, the Metropolitan Opera’s partnership with the Lincoln Center Theater, which has yet to bear concrete fruit, appears geared toward producing smaller-scale works rather than full-blown main-stage productions.)

The voices that composers encounter in those apprentice programs and schools, of course, are precisely those young, polished, flexible products of the current American system: young artists who have been trained to try to sing whatever a composer writes. This is not an arena in which a composer can learn about the excitement of the human voice nor learn how to tailor a role to a particular singer. Instead, the kind of voice that Torke describes-a high voice that doesn’t let you understand the words-enters the composer’s head as a model.

As a matter of fact, most major American opera singers have expressed interest in taking part in the premiere of a contemporary opera, though few have found suitable vehicles. Renée Fleming, who allegedly championed and then abandoned the idea of an operatic version of Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto by the composer Aaron Jay Kernis, may now be involved in the Metropolitan Opera’s future plans for a new opera by one of the hottest (South) American composers of the moment, the Argentine Osvaldo Golijov (who lives in Massachusetts). Golijov is no stranger to writing for a particular voice. A number of his pieces have been composed for Dawn Upshaw, including his song cycle “Ayre,” which took the singer in so many stylistic directions that her voice was often completely unrecognizable. Upshaw has developed a whole career as a muse for contemporary composers, Golijov and John Harbison among them. Her artistry is admirable, but sheer opulence of sound is not one of her virtues, and her voice has never been particularly operatic. This is not to beat up on Upshaw but simply one concrete example of the fact that traditional operatic vocalism does not appear to be the primary source of inspiration for many if not most composers who are currently writing operas.

It would be foolish to romanticize American opera’s recent past: posterity has not been kind to the works of Menotti, Ward, or Pasatieri. (Carlisle Floyd, who has a toehold in the canon with Susannah and Of Mice and Men, is an exception to another general rule about American opera: it appears to be disposable, since so many of its works have been forgotten.) But in the throwback conservatism of these earlier works, there was also a vocal conservatism that sounds, when you encounter one of them again, surprisingly effective. If they continued a traditional aesthetic, they also understood some principles of traditional drama and vocalism-principles that continue to be effective no matter what kind of music you write. (For instance, Alban Berg, one of the greatest opera composers of the twentieth century, showed that these principles were perfectly compatible with sophisticated atonality.) And these mid-century American operas were performed by strong singers with vocal integrity: Phyllis Curtin, Frances Bible, Norman Treigle.

But American opera singers are losing the edge that made them prominent. The goal of opera training has become to get roles rather than develop a distinctive vocal presence. And composers, arguably as a result and certainly as a parallel, seem to have less and less idea of what might constitute that presence. The influence of Broadway used to mean flair, entertainment, drama-Menotti wrote straight opera for Broadway, and in The Consul included one of the great contemporary dramatic monologues for soprano. Today, the notion of Broadway influence is no less ubiquitous, but it tends to translate as lightness, slickness, a kind of dumbing down that’s akin to the palpable relief of both a recitalist and her audience at the end of a program when it’s time for the “fun” American set.

We appear, once again, to be in a new age of American opera. There is a tremendous amount of new work being written, which is a good thing. Yet this push also reflects the recognition that American opera, however you define it, is hanging in the balance. It is not enough merely to present well-meaning productions of operas 150 years old. Something new has to happen in this field, or it is doomed.

The solution lies not simply in throwing new operas at audiences. The ultimate goal, after all, is to make opera meaningful again, and perhaps (though this lies outside a composer’s direct control) to create something more enduring than disposable. And the achievement of that goal lies in the aesthetic considerations that are currently being overshadowed by utilitarian ones. It lies in asking questions about what we want our opera, and our singers, to be.

In downplaying the role of “opera” in the term “American opera,” one also downplays the role of voice. And in so doing, one ignores the fact that opera, whatever the nature of its music, rises and falls with the actual visceral excitement of the experience-which is defined, and offered, by the human voice. For voices, big or small, are the seed of that which makes opera distinctive, something more than just a strange drama that happens to be sung.

One of the points of the exercise of art is the development of a voice, literal or figurative, that is a significant, vital presence with something to say. And it’s just this that singers and composers appear to have lost sight of. In short: American opera needs to find its voice again.

Citation:
Midgette, Anne. “The Voice of American Opera.” The Opera Quarterly 23:1 (Winter 2007) p.81-95.

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EPP_HeadshotErica Papillion-Posey is one of the founders and directors of Operagasm.com. You can learn more about Erica under the ‘About Us’ tab at the top of the page. Her articles are featured on Operagasm.com every other Wednesday. Erica welcomes you to comment on her article or email her privately at erica@operagasm.com.

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1 Comment

  1. This is a very thoughtful and insightful overview of the current trends in opera in this country and deserves to be disseminated as widely as possible. The hype regarding productions of new ‘American’ opera is, for the most part, in striking contrast to the puerile and tepid, embarrassingly simplistic works themselves, few of which will ever truly resonate long term with the opera public, let alone with the broader audience the managements purport to be attempting to attract with the new repertoire. One of the very few that deserves the term “American
    Opera” was not mentioned in your article:
    by Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein – a sophisticated and dramatically compelling synthesis of American and European musical styles.

    Young singers are caught in a dilemma today: fit the marketing model or forget having any real shot at a career. The development of a vocal and dramatic personality of distinction and distinctiveness
    is simply no longer possible – the medium is the message! The resident artist programs which have proliferated among American opera companies in recent years, and which
    were created ostensibly to help young singers develop their careers, are mostly
    successful in providing these companies with cheap labour for small roles and only in a handful of cases actually benefit the participants. They certainly do not replace the now unfashionable approach mentioned in the article by which a conductor or coach
    groomed a young singer over several years,
    nurturing their specific and individual talent in a careful and considered way.

    By the way, American singers wanting to get a foothold in Europe (Germany, in particular)
    have faced another challenge since the early 1990s, namely the flood of excellent eastern European singers, well trained in the older conservatories of former communist controlled countries and who were now in the west and willing to work for very low pay.
    It is not surprising then that young American singers tend to confine their training and early experience, at least, to these shores.
    It’s a pity because this essentially limits their perspective of the possibilities of the art form.

    Anyway, I thoroughly appreciated this long overdue expose of what I regard as the advent of corporate opera and the corporate, well-marketed opera singer trend of our contemporary opera scene in America.

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