Episode: Why Do Contemporary Operas Rarely Get Revivals?

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Why Do Contemporary Operas Rarely Get Revivals?

Attending a new opera? Better take it all in because there's a good chance it may not be performed again. According to a 2015 study by Opera America, of the 589 operas that were premiered over the last 20 years, just 71 (or 11 percent) received subsequent revivals.

For the second of two episodes dedicated to contemporary opera, we consider why the revival percentage is so low, and what gives a new opera staying power.

Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, says that historically, few operas have ever entered the standard repertoire. "In the years of the 1780s, over a thousand operas a year premiered," he noted, but only a few, including Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, have withstood the test of time and continue to be performed. "Even though we see such a flowering of American creativity in opera, we still see a relatively limited number of new works."

The Opera America study found that Mark Adamo's Little Women has been revived the highest number of times, with 66 revivals since its premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 1998. David Gockley, who was general manager in Houston when Little Women premiered, says its popularity is due to its recognizable title, modest scale and ability to be performed by younger singers. "It is a gorgeous gem of a piece," said Gockley, who is now entering his 10th and final season as general director of San Francisco Opera.

Gockley encourages young composers to make their operas "more portable, more performable by different-sized companies."

Cori Ellison, dramaturg at the Glyndebourne Festival in England, notes that some larger companies are developing adjunct, black-box-style venues where new works can get their start. "It's good if you can commission a good old barn-burning grand opera now and again," she said. "But I think that a lot of the future of new opera in this country has to do with small venues and more modest scale."

Dead Man Walking, by American composer Jake Heggie, has received the second highest number of revivals, at 42, since its 2000 premiere with the San Francisco Opera. Gockley said he's looking forward to more new works by Heggie in the season ahead. He also maintains that the current season is nearly a golden age compared with 40 years ago, when he was starting out in Houston. "Compared with 1974, this is an immense amount of activity and to be thankful for."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this page and please share your thoughts below.

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