Not So Fast
January 24, 2008
Sunday’s New York Times devoted much of the front page of the Arts & Leisure section, plus an entire inner page, to a theme that has been on my mind all week. The piece in question told the compelling story of two ambitious opera-creators who worked for seventeen years to achieve a first production, losing masses of cash in the process. There were many insinuations and outright claims that opera is a moribund, unprofitable medium for all concerned. My first thought was pretty much “Poppycock,” and so were my eighteenth and nineteenth.
Not only are opera companies proliferating in this country in a manner that is unprecedented, but the welcome accorded new operas was drastically underplayed by Sunday’s writer. I know personally several composers who are prospering conspicuously in that métier. And a writer with a respected musical-theater history, who has just finished his fourth libretto for well-placed opera projects, tells me that he sees no reason to rely on the uncertainties on Broadway and Off when he can dwell in operaland, where, to his visible gratification, operas get commissioned, produced, and paid for reliably.
I can give an example, not randomly or remotely, but as a close-up witness to the work of a particular friend. He had his first opera produced in 2004 with great success. That opus has already had a second new production (both done by name directors with casts of rising young stars who have continued to rise high), and this second production will soon result in the release of a commercial recording of the work. This same new opera composer then had a conspicuous success with his second opera, in November (subsequent productions of which are in the offing), will see the premiere of a third, a one-acter, in New York in March, and has the commissions for more operas backing up. Depite the fact that he is active as a performer and composes in other forms, he already makes a good living as a composer of operas that, furthermore, employ plenty of other people who get paid.
So, while the thrills and chills in the tale of intemperate behavior, betrayal, and thwarted ambition in Sunday’s Times are undoubtedly true and representative of certain trajectories, they’re not the whole story. Every art, every medium, and every function within that medium have their pitfalls. But there is success to be found, satisfaction to be had, and not inconsiderable money to be made in creating opera still. And from what I know of some of these folks, it’s only going to get better.