By Lawrence Edelson
January 2012

Inspired by Washington National Opera’s new American opera initiative, and a subsequent article by Anne Midgette in the Washington Post, there has been a lot of discussion online this week about what makes American opera “American.” This question isn’t exactly new – it just gets recycled whenever there is important news in the field that pertains to American opera.  Of course, there is no single answer to this question – but I’d like to look at it from what I feel is the most important perspective: the audience.

However, before I launch into that discussion, I have to acknowledge the importance of WNO’s new initiative. When we started the Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP) at American Lyric Theater in 2007, it was the first full-time mentorship initiative for opera composers and librettists in the country. While there were many excellent smaller-scale mentorship opportunities out there, there was nothing truly full-time before the CLDP. The CLDP still remains the most extensive mentorship program in the country, but I’m thrilled to see producing companies like Philadelphia, Washington and Fort Worth. put significant resources behind the mentorship of the next generation of operatic writers. This is truly fantastic news and I hope more opera companies will consider how they can serve the opera field, and their audiences, by finding ways to encourage the development of new work and new artists.

Notice how I just brought up the audience again?

In speaking about Fort Worth Opera’s new initiative, Frontiers, (for which, as a matter of full disclosure, I serve on the panel), FWO’s Music Director, Joe Illick, said, "After each of our productions of Dead Man Walking, Before Night Falls, Angels in America, and Hydrogen Jukebox, our audiences have voiced their fascination with contemporary opera and their desire to learn more about the process of developing and nurturing new works, so this is a stellar opportunity for the public to get a peek behind the curtain at how contemporary opera is born."

There is certainly no coincidence that opera companies around the country are investing in American opera with renewed vigor. The audience wants it – and of particular importance (in my opinion), new audiences want it.

In terms of “relevance” to contemporary American audiences, there are a few issues at play. As I always say when discussing ALT’s role in serving the opera field, it is important to remember that that. in any country, and in any period of time in which opera was thriving, it was a popular entertainment form, in the language of the people, that passionately engaged and entertained large and diverse segments of the population.  If opera is to thrive in the 21st century, we must look back to its roots as a popular entertainment form that developed as a result of the tastes of the societies in which it was produced. However, the idea of what is “relevant” is often confused with what is “recognized”. Both relevance and recognition are important, but play different roles in building participation for opera, and in shaping opera itself.

Thinking about why people go to opera (for the moment, let’s think about people who are already inclined to go), some people are more motivated by the sense of recognition while others are more motivated by a sense of discovery. Traditional audiences tend to lean towards recognition. People who go to Carmen over and over again do so because they love Carmen. They know the music, they know the story, they know they like it, and they know they will have a good time (assuming the production and cast is good). This is about recognition. Even for people who are new to opera, going to Carmen is often about recognition, because they’ve heard of it, and they recognize some of “the tunes.” There may be elements of discovery (ie. discovering a new singer in the title role, discovering a new take on the story through a new production, or for a new person to opera – the discovery of that experience), but the strongest motivator to attendance here tends to be recognition.

The more avid of an opera fan someone is, the more they tend to lean towards the discovery side of the scale. They seek out new experiences in an art form they love: new singers, “old” operas they don’t know, new productions, and for some – new works. This sort of motivation explains fanatics of The Ring who travel around the world to discover new productions – or someone who will go to any Handel opera ever presented, no matter who presents it. Recognition is, of course, mixed in here – but discovery can become the motivational driver to to attend. The Handel lover is going for a combination of recognizing the Handel he or she loves, but primarily to discover a new side to their favorite composer. The Wagner lover is going for their love of The Ring, but we all know how much Wagnerites love to dissect new productions! The balance between recognition and discovery is different in every example you might consider, but it can be very helpful in understanding why people attend different operas.

With new operas, we also have great potential to attract new audiences – in part because the new works are in the language of the people (in the US, English or Spanish), and importantly, because they are often written on subjects that people recognize. For audiences trying opera for the first time, recognition is a powerful tool that shouldn’t be underestimated – and it is often more powerful than relevance, no matter how they are intertwined. But, sometimes the works that attract new audiences don’t appeal to more traditional audiences for a variety of factors. That is fine, as long as companies realize there are often different target markets at play – and while there is often some overlap, the motivations that cause different audience segments to attend are themselves different (as I discussed in detail in my post earlier this month).

Look at one of the most successful American operas: Mark Adamo’s Little Women. Part of the reason Little Women has been so successful for so many companies (besides the fact that it is a very strong piece musically and theatrically, and it does not require large performing forces) is the recognition factor. Sure, the themes in Little Women are deeply relevant (ie. resistance to change), and Little Women is an American story, but the bottom line is that people recognize the title – even if they don’t actually know the story. That in itself can be the entry point. Most people trying Little Women for the first time don’t know Adamo as a composer or librettist. They are going to see something they think they recognize. Then, when they go, they have a new experience – they discover opera through a story (or a title) that they recognize.

When I commissioned The Golden Ticket, I was thinking a great deal about the recognition factor as a bridge to building participation and enabling discovery. Again, the themes of the story are relevant, but that’s not what was going to drive people to buy tickets. They were going to buy tickets because they were curious about the idea of an opera based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At both Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (where the opera premiered), and The Wexford Festival in Ireland (where it received its second mounting), The Golden Ticket attracted more diverse audiences than for other season offerings. This was by design – not by luck or circumstance. The Golden Ticket is based on one of the world’s most famous books, but it is not an “American” story. Dahl was born in Wales and his most famous books were written in the UK. Of course, the book was made more famous by American movies. The composer of The Golden Ticket is American (Peter Ash), but the librettist is British (Donald Sturrock). It is considered an American opera because it was written by an American composer and developed and premiered by American companies – but what really makes it “American” besides that – and is that really important?

The “American-ness” from an opera can come from being relevant and/or recognizable in its subject matter, but it also can come from musical style and the theatrical style (potentially in the libretto, the music, as well as the way in which a piece is staged). X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X, is a wonderful “American” opera by Anthony Davis – but not just because of the subject matter. The use of American musical vernacular contributes to its “Americanness”. Some would argue that X is more “American” than Little Women – but does it really matter? In Wexford, some reviewers thought The Golden Ticket was “too American” – not because of the story, but because of the musical style, and the production itself. Of course, the level of The Golden Ticket’s “American-ness” was not an issue in the US!  Then there is Anna Nicole, an “American” opera, written by Turnage which premiered in London. How “American” is Anna Nicole? And again, does it matter? When thinking about all of these operas, I’d rather ask these questions: What type of audiences did they attract? Were they exciting both musically and theatrically? Did audiences have a compelling experience? Did they accomplish what their creators set out to accomplish? What is their potential to be produced again?

American opera draws from many sources of inspiration. Relevance and recognition play roles in understanding audience behavior for both traditional repertoire and new works, and at the same time, they shape the artistic nature of the works themselves – whether or not they are written by Americans or in America. Generating new work is crucial, as is the development and promotion of American artists and new American work.  If we want to strengthen audiences for opera, that new work can be a very useful tool. However, it is equally important to understand what motivates participation in opera, and the different audience segments (or “target markets”) that make up our existing and potential audiences.

With all of my discussion of market orientation, you might think I have lost sight of the passion behind what makes opera OPERA – let alone “American” opera. Of course, I love opera. I simply feel it is necessary – especially in this environment where opera companies are going bankrupt, suspending their seasons, and having trouble with their governance structures and business models – to remember that consumer preference has shaped opera since its inception. When we start thinking about “American-ness” in opera, I think that audience preference needs to be at the forefront of that discussion.

In its earliest years, opera served to enhance the rule of dynasties and the power of cardinals in Rome, but, when it moved north to Venice and was opened to the public, it underwent a radical transformation that was clearly guided by new audiences. These audiences were not seeking to glorify anyone but themselves. Their attendance at opera was purely for pleasure.  Opera quickly became a commercial enterprise – a source of popular entertainment. Opera had to adjust itself in order to survive and ultimately thrive. Remember from my earlier post that the first opera house was opened in Venice in 1637, presenting commercial opera and run for profit!. It offered new entertainment to anyone who could afford a ticket.  By the end of the seventeenth century, Venice had sixteen opera houses open to the general public.

The new consumers of opera enjoyed the previously emphasized lavish scenic effects, but solo singing grew tremendously in importance. Composers strove more and more to exploit the versatility and virtuosity of the human voice.  Using the voice in this way was actually not initially driven by artistic principles, but rather by audience demand.  Consumer preference shaped the output of the Venetian composers, who then voiced those preferences through their individual artistic gifts.  Audience preferences dictated, to a great extent, the commercial success of the operas that were presented. Wherever opera found a new home, these preferences, and the commercial effects of utilizing and taking advantage of these preferences, guided the continual development of the form. (Weiss 34) Why then, should contemporary opera administrators balk at the idea of allowing audience preferences to shape opera today?

The “marketing mindset” is frowned upon by many in the artistic community, who assert that the development and presentation of art should not be dictated by the fluctuating tastes of audiences.  However, ignoring audience tastes would ultimately lead to the complete extinction of any art form. Throughout operatic history, composers, librettists and impresarios have understood the importance of their audiences. Some of the most significant musicological and theatrical changes in opera history were motivated by the devotion – whether conscious or unconscious – to the consumer..  We can learn a great deal by looking back at some of our predecessors who can teach us that adopting what is essentially a marketing mindset does not have to be destructive. In fact, such a mindset can inform and enhance an art form’s very development – and its stability and viability in society.


It is widely accepted that opera was borne out of the desire to create a performing genre based on Greek tragedy. The myths that served as the basis for Greek tragedies (including the stories of the house of Atreus, upon which The Oresteia was based) were ancient legends. The audience for Greek tragedies knew all of the stories upon which the “new plays” were based. It was a part of their heritage, and a part of their consciousness.  Opera’s antecedent was based on a link to consumer consciousness.  Furthermore, the activities of the members of the Florentine Camerata, who were responsible for the codification of what we now consider opera, were strongly tinged with consumer orientation. According to musicologist Susan McClary, “despite the humanistic red herrings proffered by Peri, Caccini [members of the Camerata] and others to the effect that they were reviving Greek performance practices, these gentlemen knew very well that they were basing their new reciting style on the improvisatory practices of contemporary popular music.  Thus the eagerness with which the humanist myth was constructed and elaborated sought both to conceal the vulgar origins of its techniques and to flatter the erudition of its cultivated patrons.”(qtd. in Storey 32)

In the century that followed, operatic reform in Vienna – most often viewed from the perspective of the works of Gluck – was one of the most influential theatrical-musical developments, predicated in great part by consumer preferences. During the eighteenth century, operatic libretti underwent a substantial transformation, most visibly in the works of Pietro Metastasio who had “purged the operatic libretto of its trivialities and made it “regular”, worthy even of comparison with the masterpieces of French tragedy.” (Weiss 115). Close on the heels of libretto reform was musical reform that was propelled by critical voices that “complained of the rigidity of the new operatic conventions, which, among other things, tended to indulge a new breed of superstar singers by focusing all the musical expression in da capo arias.” (Weiss 115).  In Vienna, Gluck’s musical reform was accompanied by a reform in staging through the composer’s collaboration with choreographer Gasparo Angiolini and scholar Ranieri Calzabigi. Although Orfeo ed Euridice, the first “reform opera” resulting from this collaboration, remains their most famous and lasting achievement, preparations for the second Gluck-Calzabigi opera, Alceste, provided the opportunity for Calzabigi to berate the staging and musical conventions of Metastasio’s works that he felt would be avoided in his work with Gluck:

Since these [Metastasio’s] dramas, could not, in performance, please the mind, they had need to entertain the senses: the eye by the sight of live horses in cardboard forests, by real battles fought on painted battlefields, by conflagrations of colored paper; the ear by using the voices as if they were violins and producing whole concertos with the human mouth alone, thus giving rise to that musical gargling with in Naples they call trocciolette (because it closely resembles the noise of the wheels passing over the ropes of a pulley) – and a mass of other musical whimsies comparable to those stone tidbits with which Gothic architecture decorated, or rather disfigured, its monuments and which, once so admired, are now objects of laughter and contempt to anyone who bothers to stop and look at them. And to make room for these strange embellishments the poet lent himself to the filling of his librettos with similes involving storms, tempests, lions, war horses, and nightingales which fit about as well into the mouths of passionate, desperate, or furious heroes as beauty spots, powder, makeup, and diamonds on the face, head and neck of an ape. (qtd. in Weiss 117)

Calzabigi continues to attack the operatic conventions that he feels audiences should not have to endure, and which he and Gluck set out to change:

There [in the dramas of Metastasio] it is a matter not whether a character in the drama is sung by a Farinelli, Caffarelli, [etc.] since the audience does not expect nor demand from the singers more than a couple of arias and a duet, without even pretending to make out all the words, having from the start abandoned all hope of taking an interest in the action; no one; after all, can listen attentively for five hours to six performers, four of whom are usually so inept that they hardly know how to enunciate[…] As for the utterly unnatural philosophizing heroes of the type of Metastasio’s Horace, Themistocles, Cato, and Romulus, the like of which are not to be met in this world, about them I prefer to hold my tongue all together. (qtd. in Weiss 117)

Although we now look upon historical works with admiration rather than as “objects of laughter and contempt," it is clear that Calzabigi felt that his audiences were demanding something different than what tradition was providing.  Similarly, we should allow ourselves to be in tune with what our audiences want and can relate to. Calzabigi felt strongly that he understood his audiences’ needs, and his work with Gluck strove to meet those needs – the very essence of the basic consumer behavior model, fulfilling a target group’s wants and needs.  Of Alceste, he wrote that “the duration is limited to what does not tire or make the attention wander. The plots are simple, not romanticized; a few verses are enough to inform the spectators of the progress of the action which is never double, in servile, uncalled-for obedience to the silly rule concerning the secondo uomo and seconda donna when not needed.  Reduced to the dimensions of Greek tragedy, they have therefore the unique advantage of exciting terror and pity in the same way as spoken tragedy.” (qtd. in Weiss 117)

Regardless of how we now perceive works like Alceste, in their time, Gluck and Calzabigi were striving to break away from established convention, not merely to be innovators, but to serve the drama and appeal to the preferences of their audiences. Calzabigi himself acknowledges the value of his audiences’ opinions: “If this new plan[…] should find the approval of the public[…] it is essential to adhere to it and not to confound it with that of Signor Metastasio, because ornaments for brunettes do not suit blondes.” (qtd. in Weiss 118) Though the reform of Gluck and Calzabigi was not met unequivocally with praise, they clearly had identified that an audience existed for their reform operas, and, as they developed their skills in this new genre, the audience grew.

For English speaking audiences in eighteenth century London, Ballad Opera was immensely popular. It reached everyone, “by using well-known airs, everyday characters, and spoken dialogue[…]”. (Kirk 14) The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay was the catalyst for the popularity of the Ballad Opera form.  During its first season, it ran for sixty-two nights, the longest run that any show enjoyed on the English stage for almost a century. Its audience appeal was clear, spawning more than one hundred similar works to be written in an imitative fashion between 1728 and 1750. (Kirk 14).  This was clearly a popular art form. While satirizing the Italian operatic tradition, the English composers and librettists had found a way to adapt the music-theater format based on the tastes of their audiences.

In the Romantic era of the following century, Verdi biographer Abramo Basevi asserts that the composer was primarily concerned with communicating with his public:

[After 1848] there was a change in Verdi’s genius, rendering him more attuned to the new period. The exaggeration that had often been condemned in Verdi’s music was much toned down. As if by instinct, Verdi recognized that recent events had, if not mitigated the passions, at least held them in check; minds were not so strongly moved, and therefore there was less occasion for those violent modes that were so frequently used before. And this new universal feeling being now implanted in Verdi, the result was that his new music assumed a different aspect, so well defined and distinct as to deserve the character of a second manner.(qtd. in Weiss 191)

In effect, Verdi was trying to appeal to the consciousness of his audience. Interestingly, Basevi voiced strong objections to some of Verdi’s choice of subject matter.  Macbeth was attacked for its excursions into the supernatural; Rigoletto berated as shocking on moral grounds; but La Traviata, which continues to be one of the most popular operas around the globe, was deemed by the biographer to be truly horrific. However, offended as he may have been personally, Basevi clearly understood part of the reason for La Traviata’s instant appeal. He wrote that “Verdi was unable to resist the temptation of setting to music, and so making more attractive and acceptable, a filthy and immoral subject, universally loved because today the vice it represents is universal[…]”(qtd. in Weiss 193) Basevi continues by contrasting Verdi’s work with that of Bellini, and in so doing emphasizes how both composers were in tune with their audiences’ preferences, while also reinforcing why La Traviata resonated (and continues to resonate) so strongly with audiences:

The difference in the love which Bellini and Verdi depicted in their music is testimony to the different sensibilities at the respective times of the two composers…If in Norma Bellini portrayed a guilty woman, he presents her to us so blinded by passion that she cannot see the enormity of her sin. And in any case, Norma’s guilt offends us less, since the remoteness of the time and difference of customs make it harder for our conscience to identify with hers. Which is not the case with La Traviata, where we find characters not only close to us in time and customs, but also of the same [social] condition. (qtd. in Weiss 193)

As is clear, consumer orientation was not limited to any particular country or style of operatic composition. In The Art Work of the Future, Richard Wagner wrote in detail about his views on opera and drama.  Even Wagner, with his truly revolutionary approach to opera, considered the needs, tastes and consciousness of his audiences as he developed his unique Gesamtkunstwerk. Wagner was often able to distill his elaborate theories into very simple and clear thoughts.  He wrote that “true drama is thinkable only as the consequence of the common urge of all the arts to communicate in the most direct way with a common public[…]”(qtd. in Weiss 205).  Wagner’s writing bears repeating here, as it so articulately explains his belief that art should come from the people and be for the people.  Although Wagner might not have considered himself a marketer, he clearly understood the basic psychological needs that must propel the product portion of the marketing equation, as well as the imposed hierarchy of culture and the societal issues that we continue to battle with today:

If we examine the relation of modern art – insofar as it is truly art – to public life, we will at once realize how totally unsuited it is to influence that public life in terms of its noblest aspiration. The reason is that, as a merely cultural product, it has not really sprung from life and so, as a hothouse plant, cannot possibly take root in the natural soil and natural climate of the present age. Art has become the private property of an artist class; the pleasure it provides is reserved to those who understand it, and understanding it requires a special study remote from real life, the study of art scholarship. This study, and the understanding accruing from it, everybody nowadays thinks he has acquired when he has got the money with which to pay for the proffered artistic pleasures: but whether the majority of today’s art lovers are able to understand the artist at his best is a question the artist, if asked, can only answer with a deep sigh. But should he consider the vastly greater mass of those whom our unfavorable social conditions exclude in every way from an understanding or simply the enjoyment of modern art, then today’s artist would have to realize that all his artistic striving is basically a selfish, complacent striving wholly for its own sake, that his art is, in terms of public life, nothing but a luxury, a redundant, self-gratifying pastime. The gap, observed daily and bitterly lamented, between the so-called educated and uneducated is so tremendous, a mediation between them so unthinkable, a reconciliation so impossible, that with a little honesty, modern art, based as it is on that education, should in deepest shame admit it owes its existence to a life element that in turn owes its existence to the deep ignorance of the real mass of humanity. The only thing modern art, in its present circumstances, should accomplish, and attempts to in honest hearts, namely the diffusion of culture, it cannot, for the simple reason that art, in order to affect life, must blossom from a natural culture, that is one that has grown from below; it can never pour culture down from above. In the best of cases our cultured art resembles a man who tries to communicate with people in a foreign tongue they do not understand: everything he says, and especially his cleverest remarks, can only lead to the most laughable confusion and misunderstandings.(qtd. in Weiss 203)

Two of the great Russian operatic composers, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, were also well attuned to the preferences and sensibilities of their audiences. In an article authored by Shostakovich prior to the American premiere of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtzensk, the composer explained his reasons for choosing his subject matter:

Why did I select just this novel by Nikolai Leskov… First, because very little of our heritage in Russian classic literature had been utilized in the development of Soviet opera. Second – and this was most important – because Leskov’s narrative is imbued with rich dramatic and social content…As a Soviet composer, I determined to preserve the strength of Leskov’s novel, and yet, approaching it critically, to interpret its events from our modern point of view. (qtd. in Weiss 298)

Shostakovich clearly had an affinity for his subject matter, but, equally important, this affinity represented a link to the consciousness of a substantial portion of society and direct recognition of the source material.  His opera represented an ideal intersection of recognition and relevance for his audiences, as can be attested to by the fact that at one point in 1936 (four years after its premiere), three separate productions were playing simultaneously in Moscow. (Weiss 301)

We are very fortunate that many of Tchaikovsky’s letters during the period surrounding the composition and premiere of Eugene Onegin are extant.  In them, Tchaikovsky demonstrates a clear understanding of how factors of recognition and relevance of subject matter are crucial to audience acceptance of a new work. Pushkin’s verse novel, published in its final form in 1837, was a treasured piece of Russian cultural heritage.  Tchaikovsky was clearly inspired by Pushkin’s work, and throughout the opera’s genesis, aesthetic considerations continually permeated the composer’s thoughts. He was excited to be writing about something relevant to his audiences: “You won’t believe what a frenzy I have got myself into over this subject.  How glad I am to be spared Ethiopian princesses, Pharaohs, poisonings, and all kinds of stilted mannerisms.” (qtd. in Weiss 217)

It should be noted that even though Tchaikovsky was aware of his audience’s affinity for his literary source, he felt that the strongest motivation to compose had to come from within. He wrote that “I cannot understand at all how anyone could write intentionally either for the masses or for the elect; my view is that one should compose in direct response to one’s own inclination and with no thought of pleasing this or that section of humanity.”(qtd. in Weiss 218) Despite Tchaikovsky’s statement, Eugene Onegin is undoubtedly one of the most beloved Russian operas ever written.  The fact that the composer did not feel that he was consciously trying to appeal to a specific segment of the population does not negate the fact that he was aware of the potential appeal of his work.

Journalist and author John Seabrook observes that throughout history, “art created for idealistic reasons, in apparent disregard for the marketplace, was judged superior to art made to sell. For the artist it was not enough to have a gift for giving the people what they wanted; to insure fame, the artist had to pretend not to care what the people wanted.  This was difficult to do, for the artist, of every type, is as desperate for public approval as any human being.  Oscar Wilde was a famous example of this paradox.  "In his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism he wrote, A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament.  Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is.  It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want.  The moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman.’  Of course, Wilde himself knew exactly what people wanted and how to give it to them; he used his essays to camouflage that facility.” (Seabrook 69).  Tchaikovsky’s posture may, in fact, have been similar to Oscar Wilde’s “defense” of his own works that had significant public appeal.

Tchaikovsky was actually an acutely insightful marketer who understood that the success or failure of his work hinged on its acceptance by the public. Prior to its premiere at the Conservatory, Tchaikovsky completed a piano version of the score. Wondering how he could help ensure that the opera got a firm foothold with his audiences, Tchaikovsky wrote what could be considered a brief marketing plan complete with his rationale:

It seems to me that this opera is more likely to be successful in private houses and perhaps even on concert platforms than on large stages; for this reason the fact that it will be published long before going into the repertoire of the large theaters is not unfavorable. The success of the opera must begin from below not from above, i.e. it is not the theater which will make it known to the public but, on the contrary, if the public gradually gets to know it, it may come to like it and then the theater will put the opera on to satisfy a public demand. (qtd. in Weiss 220)

Moving to the United States, the beginning of the twentieth century and the end of the Romantic era ushered in the advent of the motion picture industry, and contemporary operatic forms quickly responded to the new technology and audience’s reactions to the new art form. Writing in 1923, Eugene Adrian Farner, who composed the one-act opera The White Buffalo Maiden, commented on opera’s affinities with the aesthetics and methodology of early film.  In fact, he went so far as to list ways that composers, librettists and producers could make opera more relevant and in tune with audiences’ changing sensibilities:

a. Brevity (one hour); avoiding narrative in recitative, using instead pantomime with musical accompaniment; condensation of material to a series of “big screens” with opportunities for each singer, the chorus, and orchestra; by

b. Being to the point – striving for the self-unconscious naturalness of Gilbert and Sullivan, the direct and simple description of Gluck; the vocal opportunity in Mozart, the action of the “movies”; by

c. Use of small cast, small chorus and small orchestra, facilitating productions on tour; and by

d. A full measure of popular dramatic interest.(qtd. in Kirk 169)

For many composers during the early 1900s, motion pictures were a new, American form of opera. “Most of Hollywood’s finest film scores of the period were composed by European musicians such as Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, Franz Waxman and Erich Korngold.  Numerous young American-born symphonic and opera composers also went to Hollywood during the 1930s to try their hands at the thriving new dramatic art.  Their work in films played a role in their creative process within opera. “I have tried a new kind of opera,” wrote George Antheil about his fast-moving, farcical Volpone, “an opera style influenced by the pacing which the public in general has wanted since its taste has been educated or corrupted by… the movies and, now, television.  In short, opera which is less static on stage.”.  The British composer Constant Lambert also noted parallels between opera and film: “Films have the emotional impact for the twentieth century that operas had for the nineteenth… D.W. Griffith is our Puccini, Cecil B. DeMille our Meyerbeer”. (Kirk 255). Even today, the influence of mass entertainment forms such as film and television, and the market driven shape of those forms, continue to be felt in the opera house. Designer John Conklin observed that many of the changes taking place in contemporary opera have been predicated by what is happening in one of society’s predominant sources of entertainment, the cinema. “You seldom find a three-or four-act opera like in the nineteenth century, rather lots and lots of shorter scenes[…] The musical and dramatic form of opera is changing, therefore so is the method of presentation.” (qtd. in Kirk 325)

In tandem with the artistic developments that were a response to new forms of popular entertainment, beginning in the 1940’s, American opera took another turn that was based a great deal on audiences’ tastes. “American verismo composers centered action around plausible, everyday characters and brought them into focus through richly expressive melodic and orchestral means in a form of music drama that has enlarged the repertoire of opera houses across the nation[…].  Gods, the nobility, Byronic heroes, and ancient legends have little place in verismo.  The focus is on the here and now – elements with which an audience can strongly sympathize.” (Kirk 253-4) The positive reception of Gian Carlo Menotti’s music-theater works on Broadway, including his American verismo masterpiece, The Consul, can give us additional food for thought.

In 1947, the short operas The Telephone and The Medium by Menotti were the first American operas to be recorded in their entirety and among the earliest to achieve a successful Broadway run. (Kirk 387) Menotti understood that American audiences have preexisting ideas about what opera is, and that those internal beliefs serve as barriers to participation.  He and his producers did a number of things to combat these pre-conceptions. Most notably, they took “opera” out of the “opera-house”.  The link between the consciousness of his intended audience and the opera house as a performing venue was highly negatively charged.  It was no coincidence that his greatest successes were produced on Broadway prior to entering the repertoire of opera companies around the world.  On Broadway, presented as a “musical drama”, The Consul enjoyed enormous critical and popular success. The Consul was in English, based on topical subject matter linked to the consciousness of contemporary audiences, and written in a highly theatrical style.  During the 1949-50 season, The Consul won both the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. After its initial 269 performances in New York, the work was staged in London, Paris, Berlin, Zurich and Milan.  In 1961, The Consul became the first Broadway production to be prepared exclusively for pay-per-view television. (Kirk 259).  Menotti’s understanding of both audience preferences and audience barriers to participation enabled him to create a work in an environment that presented the best potential for both artistic and fiscal success.

Like Menotti, Carlisle Floyd writes his own libretti and has an innate sense of theater that is informed by the public.  Floyd asserts that “to know his subjects he must remain in contact with the public.” (Kirk 290).  He also understands that the subject matter of an opera has, in some way, to link itself to the consciousness of the audience for whom it is being written: “A libretto should make some comment on contemporary life and timeless human problems[…]”(qtd. in Kirk 290).  This can clearly be seen in the choice of his literary sources in such works as Wuthering Heights after Brontë, Markeheim after Stevenson, Of Mice and Men after Steinbeck, and Cold Sassy Tree after Burns. Even his operas not based on famous literary works were always based on stories with which he personally felt an affinity, and that he knew he could create in a way that would speak to his audiences.

New York City Opera’s emphasis on the American folk opera idiom of the 1950s, best embodied in the works of Floyd, Copland, and Moore, was an outgrowth of the period from 1936 to 1942, the years of the Great Depression’s Federal Music Project that encouraged reaching to the far corners of America in the simplest terms possible. (Kirk 291).  In the decades that followed, these folk-like influences had little place in the consciousness of audiences, hence they no longer found a footing in the minds of the majority of creative artists working in opera. Themes for libretti of the period became more sophisticated and philosophical, reflecting the increased level of sophistication of the audience.

Between 1958 and 1967, the Metropolitan Opera premiered three American works: Samuel Barber’s Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra; and Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra. Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, commissioned for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, received more publicity worldwide than any other American opera had ever received before. The New York Times reported that it was a grandiose spectacle “situated on the cosmic scale somewhere above the primeval atom that caused the original Big Bang, and somewhere below the creation of the Milky Way.”(qtd. in Kirk 298).  Franco Zeffirelli’s over the top staging was the epitome of grandiose spectacle.  The social occasion and visual elements of the production overshadowed the music, and the blame for the failure of the opera fell, many feel unjustly, on the composer.  Barber himself admitted that “the Met overproduced it[…] What I wrote and what I envisioned had nothing to do with what one saw on that stage.  Zeffirelli wanted horses and goats and two hundred soldiers, which he got, and he wanted elephants, which fortunately he didn’t get. The point is, I had very little control – practically none… On the other hand, management supported every idea of Zeffirelli’s.”(qtd. in Kirk 298).  Zeffirelli had been chosen by the Met as librettist and director because they felt his style would be in sync with audiences’ interest in extravagant historical romances, but the Met was behind the times.  Audiences of the 1960’s were no longer mesmerized by historical romance, but the Met’s lack of attention to the shift in audience priorities helped contribute to a disaster.  Interestingly, the opera was revised in 1975 by Barber and Menotti to better conform to audience tastes.  The opera was shortened by an hour, and the cast was drastically downsized.  In effect, the composer’s understanding of audience preferences dramatically improved the artistic quality of the work, which has subsequently been produced and recorded with great success.

During the tenure of Julius Rudel (1957-1979), New York City Opera became the most important producer of contemporary American opera. New works were commissioned on a large-scale basis, several American works were recorded or telecast, and entire seasons were devoted to operas by American composers. In selecting works for New York City Opera’s initial American Opera seasons, Rudel says that he made a concerted effort to avoid “pale copies of European 19th century operatic writing which did not, in most cases, warrant further exposure.”  New York City Opera produced ten world premieres during the 1960’s, all by American composers who represented a broad spectrum of the nation’s creative processes that were “lucidly informed by American tastes.” (Kirk 304)

One of the most remarkable operas produced by New York City Opera was mounted in 1986 under the administration of Christopher Keene: Anthony Davis’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.  The reaction of many people to Davis’s opera (as well as other works that centered around contemporary figures) demonstrates one of the principal problems that we continue to deal with: What is opera as an American form?  Composer John Adams commented that people often told him of their uncomfortable surprise that he and Davis were using stories from contemporary life as subjects for operas: “It’s always asked with eyebrows slightly raised, as much as to say, 'When are you going to write a real opera, about King Lear or Oedipus?’  If opera is going to stay alive, these kinds of issues that Anthony has chosen are what’s needed.” (qtd. in Kirk 353).

Of course, King Lear and Oedipus are timeless classics that speak to many aspects of the human condition – of course they are “relevant”, but they do not have contemporary immediacy for the majority of the American population. How many people under 25 do you know who have read either of these great plays – or seen them – and of those who have, how many did so without being forced by an English or Classics teacher in High School? When King Lear and Oedipus were the type of topics that were the focus of librettists and composers, they were subjects that audiences could relate to, because they were figures that were readily in the consciousness of the society for which the works were being written. Classics like these are not part of the cultural conversation of a significant portion of contemporary American society. The extraordinary works of Davis and Adams appealed (and continue to appeal) only in part to traditionalists, but have opened the world of opera as living, contemporary and relevant music theater to a host of new audiences. Just as Davis and Adams re-introduced very contemporary subject matter to American audiences, they freely interpolated musical language from the world of jazz, rock, Motown and other vernacular American sounds, further solidifying the links between their works and the aural consciousness of contemporary American audiences.

From 1974 to 2005, the most successful producer of new American operas was certainly Houston Grand Opera under the leadership of David Gockley, and perhaps the company’s greatest success story was Mark Adamo’s Little Women.  Since its premiere in 1998, Little Women has unprecedentedly received over 60 subsequent mountings or new productions internationally. With a work based on a famous American literary source, before the curtain goes up, there is already an association built into people’s minds. As previously discussed, this is not based on relevance (although the themes or Little Women remain relevant), but on recognition. Adamo points out that Terrence McNally would argue that all musical theater needs such an association.  Speaking of a New York Times article that was written prior to the New York premiere of the opera Dead Man Walking, Adamo explains that McNally feels that “the idea of an original opera, an original piece, is encountered so much less frequently, than in plays[…].  His argument is that the complexity of the form, the richness of the form, is such that an audience needs or wants more than something else, some kind of simple core to which to relate everything else that revolves around it – because there is a lot going on around them.”

Mark points out, however, that, when the link between a literary antecedent and the audiences is strong, it can also be a trap for composers and opera companies:

A title can only take you so far. A title will take you to a brochure, and to an opening, but if you haven’t written that piece as though it were an original piece, if you don’t really feel like your piece absolutely has to stand on its’ own and be as convincing as if the book never existed, then you’re in trouble. And so what happened with [Little Women] is that I couldn’t find my way into it forever… then finally, when I found my way back into it, I brought it back to Washington [to the company that had originally commissioned it] and it seemed so radical that they didn’t want to do it… suddenly I had an opera that I really wanted to do, and no company. Whereas I had started not wanting to do an opera at all, let alone work on this piece, but the company was asking me to do it[…] I do think that that kind of title is one way of [initiating interest], but I think what is more important for an audience is that it is approached by the [composer and librettist] as if it is contemporary as a theater piece[…] There is an American opera that I had heard recently, and it was a beautiful gloss of Rosenkavalier. It was sung in American English, and it was beautifully done, but you were so aware of the writer’s love for the Vienna of eighty years ago that it felt more remote than it should have, given that it was in the language of audience[…] It was the love of Opera as long ago and far away[…] that’s the problem. And that has very little to do with modernism, or a book coming in, or any of those things. It has to do with the idea -. do you think of opera as a contemporary form or do you not – and that is one of the things, I think, that helped Little Women. Because the title could have set you up for the 30’s movie. The title could have set you up for a wonderful nostalgia, sepia toned thing and it would have been DOA[…] Once I got actually to the libretto phase, one thing I did was, write [it] first as a contemporary play. Period. I [did not] worry about anachronism, at all. Then I [went] back and took out just the anachronisms that would place it in this century and then I looked for, in the book, any possible turns of phrases that could antique it, just enough, so that it would feel credible as a 19th century piece. Not trying to make it historically correct. Not trying to make it feel like it was written in the 19th century, because with all the tone clusters[…] the score does the same thing[…] There’s a little bit of 19th century contour, but for the most part, if the piece were set today, I would have written the same music – and I think that is important.

Note how often Mark refers to the audience.

David Gockley similarly believes that a link to the consciousness of the audience you are trying to serve can be vital in the creation of new works if audience development is one of your primary goals. In a discussion I had with him in 2004, he pointed out that Daniel Catán’s Salsipuedes, did not fare as well at the box office as the company had hoped, despite the enormous success that the composer’s previous opera had at the company.  For Salsipuedes, there was no frame of reference for the majority of segments that make up the opera’s audience.  For the portion of consumers who knew and admired Catán’s work, Salsipuedes may have been an obvious purchase, but as Salsipuedes was only Catán’s second opera for the company, the consciousness link between the composer and the audience was minimal.  His previous work, Florencia en el Amazonas, was based on the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The fact that the work was inspired by a famous author, as well as the publicity surrounding the company’s first Spanish language work in a city with a significant Hispanic population, undoubtedly had a positive influence on ticket sales. Gockley pointed out that “Salsipuedes did not do as well as Florencia, which did not do as well as Cold Sassy Tree, which did not do as well as Harvey Milk, which did not do as well as Little Women and The Little Prince.” Though there is no proof that the link is causal, there is definitely a direct correlation between the depth of the link of an opera’s subject matter (both in relevance and recognition) to the consciousness of specific target audiences.


Of course, throughout history, there have been great operatic masterpieces that were clearly NOT guided by existing audience preferences. Sometimes, artists define the new expectations of the audience through risk taking and innovation. I’m not suggesting that opera has always been exclusively guided by market factors, or that it should be now. So what is the point of this little and highly selective survey of opera history?

Opera companies around the country are struggling to find their place in contemporary American society. Part of the problem is that opera is still often produced predominantly as a “museum” art form. Market orientation has been a friend to opera in the past. I’m simply suggesting that we can learn a lot from our audiences – if we are willing to listen. Audience preference has helped opera in many ways in the past, and the future of opera in the United States depends on keeping our ears open to the audiences we hope to serve. Even as we innovate on stage, we have to be listening to and looking at our audiences. The audience is as instrumental to the future as is the art.

New “American” works, developed with the tastes and preferences of contemporary “American” audiences, can be a very powerful tool in attracting new audiences to opera. As I discussed in my post on audience segmentation and perceptions, diversification of the audience base for audience is crucial for survival. But this goes beyond new works.

Where and how we present opera needs to be examined as well – whether we are talking about new works, or the core, foreign language operatic repertoire. The traditional producing model for opera companies is based on an outdated European model. Where do contemporary American audiences want to see their opera? How do they want to dress? What time do they want to go? Who do they want to go with? How do they want to act? While I’ve focused on the “product” – opera itself – in this post, consumer preference in delivery of “the product” is crucial – and that is something that is undergoing a lot of change as well. The first company that comes to mind is Long Beach Opera, who have developed a reputation of creating stellar productions in extremely non-traditional spaces (Opera in a swimming pool? Why not!) But this subject deserves a post all of its own.

The most important take away here? American opera relies on American audiences. There are so many ways an opera can be “American” – but without an audience, American opera will cease to exist.


Kirk, Elise K. American Opera. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Seabrook, John. Nob®ow: The Culture of Marketing and The Marketing of Culture. New. York: Vintage Books, 2001. 

Storey, John. “”Expecting Rain”: Opera as Popular Culture?” High-Pop: Making Culture into Popular Entertainment. Ed. Jim Collins. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2002. 32-55. 

Weiss, Piero. Opera: A History in Documents. New York: Oxford University Press,. 2002.