Rebalancing the Portfolio, Part 2

By Robert Marx

So much funding, press attention, management ambition and audience marketing is now focused on the new that commissions can become indispensable to a company’s operations. In comparison to custom-made commissions, opera classics are too often left to habit, impaled by diminished institutional momentum and generic expediency on stage. Far more than new work, they risk a loss of convincing urgency in performance — that deeply personal connection and justification that prevents any production from becoming routine. Without those qualities, the experience deflates.

As supremely difficult as it is to bring any new opera into being, it can be even more challenging to honestly fulfill a classic’s score and text within a vigorously contemporary theatrical concept.

Uncertainty abounds, and the shelf life of operatic theater is brief: Many benchmark productions that influenced me deeply when I was young would appear out of place now. Today’s Regietheater will look just as dated in the future.

New operas also benefit from context. Since Nixon in China was first performed at Houston Grand Opera, I suspect that a majority of new American works have had timely connections to either headlines or a commissioning company’s community identity. Issues that resonate locally often make it self-evident why an artistic director chose to produce a particular work; audiences (and boards) see a reason for this opera, now. That innate connection is a huge advantage, one that rarely surfaces with classic operas, beyond famous titles and familiar music.

There is no question that individual talent runs high in opera today, but so does collective compromise. Co-productions can have many creative advantages and prolonged success, but after initial runs they often fail in the stage configuration or culture of second and third venues. When multiple theaters share the same Trovatore or Carmen, forced savings diminish each theater’s creative stamp on a bedrock classic. The economic justifications are real, but too often co-productions replace creative producing with shopping. Rehearsal time becomes so short in opera that singers revert to instinct or the body language they recall from previous productions. Stock supertitles translate heightened language into dull vernacular speech, creating a verbal mismatch to serious musical standards. Exaggerated marketing distorts an audience’s expectations of the performance. Such issues add up quickly and tend to land more heavily on the old than the new.

But if an opera company’s mission is, in part, to sustain a roster of great classics, what are those works? Looking back, there’s never been a standard rep set in stone. The “list,” such as it is, has always changed over time.

The Metropolitan Opera’s repertory is an instructive example. Among today’s warhorse operas that went unproduced there for 20 consecutive seasons or more between 1900 and 1950 were Così fan tutte, Don Giovanni, Nozze di Figaro, Norma, Flying Dutchman, Eugene Onegin, Fledermaus, Manon Lescaut, Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo and Otello. Imagine going back in time 100 years to tell Toscanini and Gatti-Casazza that Meyerbeer would disappear, but Handel’s operas would come back in force along with early Verdi, Mozart and Donizetti. They’d think it an insane prospect. The standard rep in 2016 is not what it was pre-World War II, and the canon in 50 years will be different yet again. Each generation anoints masterpieces according to its own taste (and always assumes its choices are eternal), but fashions change.

While some traditional operas may have played themselves out through over-familiarity or changing styles, even more central to rebalancing the classics is how they are produced. Peter Sellars has said that opera directors tend to “stage the plot synopsis instead of the plot.” It’s a provocative comment, but one often made true by severe limits on rehearsal time. It’s not always a matter of stage directors settling for shorthand, but being forced into it by economic circumstance.

Kurt Herbert Adler, the legendary general director of San Francisco Opera, once said to me, “The rarest thing in all of opera is a stage director with a pair of ears,” but I suspect that directors would have more effective ears if they had more time. Time to engage the work at hand and learn the language of music in depth; time to develop their concepts and rehearse with singers, coaches and conductors; time to reject and accept ideas as rehearsals play out; time to get everyone past their intimidating memories of historic performances. More often than not, opera companies have learned to use the resource of time when producing new commissions. The same skill should apply equally to core repertoire.

Of course, time is money. But it’s foolish to suggest that funding initiatives alone could release the talent for a ground-breaking Traviata. Some existing resources can be reallocated: So many productions are needlessly overproduced, overbuilt and (frankly) overstaffed. Too often, opera settles for what’s simply accommodating, regardless of budget. But as Zelda Fichandler, that inspiring producer-philosopher, once wrote: “We need money, but much as we need money, we need — individually — to find, heighten and explore the informing idea of our theaters. We need to find our own faces. And not by looking at each other, but by looking within ourselves. We already look too much alike, and it has become a bore.”

At heart, that is the threat to standard rep in 2016. The best theaters are always mission-based within their own communities, defined by an indigenous “informing idea” shared by artists and audiences. The same can apply to opera companies, as exemplified today by the field’s considerable expansion in support of new work. Whether those new operas have future lives or not is irrelevant. Each is part of a movement going forward. That ongoing effort across this profession should never retrench, but instead spread even further to make our operatic inheritance just as necessary and integral on stage; just as indispensable; just as urgent.

Robert Marx is president of the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation in New York City, and has worked extensively in theater and opera as a producer, consultant and essayist. He was director of theater programs at both the National Endowment for the Arts and New York State Council on the Arts, and executive director of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

This article was excerpted from the Summer 2015 issue of Opera America Magazine, the quarterly of the national nonprofit service organization for opera. Members of OPERA America receive the print and digital editions of Opera America Magazine as a benefit of membership. Join today.

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