Episode: Contemporary Opera: Pleasing Both Connoisseurs and the Masses?

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Contemporary Opera: Pleasing Both Connoisseurs and the Masses?

When George Benjamin's Written on Skin had its American stage premiere at the Mostly Mozart Festival on August 11, it became an unlikely summer blockbuster: a complex, contemporary opera with an abstract storyline and a dense, modernist musical language. The work got standing ovations from audiences and rave reviews from critics – but not all of them.

This summer also saw another big premiere: Cold Mountain, by American composer Jennifer Higdon, at Santa Fe Opera. That work features a more accessible language, with traditional melodies and a conventional linear storyline, though reviews were somewhat more mixed.

This week's podcast explores which approach works best in contemporary opera, and what has "sticking power." Joining host Naomi Lewin are Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, which represents North American opera companies, Cori Ellison, dramaturg at the Glyndebourne Festival in England; she also teaches at Juilliard and the American Lyric Theater; and David Gockley, who is entering his 10th and final season as general director of San Francisco Opera. From 1972-2005 he ran Houston Grand Opera, where he commissioned a lot of new work.

Gockley is unconvinced by the popularity of Written on Skin. "It's a connoisseur's piece," he said. "Its musical language is extraordinarily complicated. I mean, are you going to sit down and play [a recording of] that at dinner?" As someone whose job includes filling a 3,200-seat house every night, Gockley says that he looks for works with a certain "bourgeois" appeal. "That is what we are – a bourgeois art form," he said. And if audiences don't immediately embrace a new work, "they're not going to come back."

Ellison points out that a very different situation exists in Europe. On a list of some 60 notable modern operas recently compiled by Washington Post readers, only about 15 of them are by non-American composers. "Those 15 operas are in a much more modernist style or spectralist style," she said. European opera houses are generally smaller, benefit from government funding and can afford to take more risks stylistically. "It's a different landscape."

A scene from Jennifer Higdon's 'Cold Mountain' (© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)

But if traditional American opera audiences balk at a complex, modern work, how do we account for the warm reception Written on Skin received, and the cooler one for Cold Mountain? All three guests acknowledge that while Higdon's first opera wasn't perfect, it showed considerable promise. "I left Cold Mountain really wanting to hear Jennifer Higdon's next opera," said Scorca. He adds, "The challenge for today's composers is to find their own sweet spot between being truly contemporary, and writing in the moment of 2015, and finding a way to connect with the audience."

And then there are regional tastes – and rivalries. "I think New York feels envious in one way and critical in another way of all the new operatic activity taking place outside of New York," said Gockley. "They are willing to dismiss it as being pap, and therefore, when something like the Benjamin comes along they can jump on that and think it's the bee's knees. As far as I'm concerned, it's just rehashing the modernism that has bit the dust again and again over the last 50 years."

To hear our guest's comments on operas based on novels and films, and why that can help their success, listen to the full segment at the top of this page.

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