At first glance, the scene inside the Winspear Opear House in Dallas on this night in mid-February looks no different from any other opening night at the opera. The well-dressed, mostly older audience mills about the lobby, sipping pre-performance flutes of champagne. Buzzy snippets of conversation about what might be in store for tonight’s performance can be overheard in various corners.
But once attendees settle into their seats and the premiere of Death and the Powers commences, the scene transforms instantly and radically: This is not your grandmother’s opera. Composed by MIT professor Tod Machover, Death and the Powers begins with a group of actual robots — imagine a cross between “Johnny 5” from Short Circuit and a stand-up vacuum cleaner — singing the prologue. (What is suffering?/How can I perceive what I cannot feel?)
The audience then is launched into a surreal fantasy about a dying tycoon who yearns to find immortality within a vast Matrix-like computer. The set consists mainly of three black boards with flashing, brightly colored lights. At various points, the Winspear’s retractable chandelier descends from the ceiling, and its lights change colors.
And though Death and the Powers — which premiered in 2010 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012 — certainly qualifies as an intriguing conversation piece, it’s also hard to regard this production as an unqualified success. Throughout the evening, audience members cast puzzled, sometimes pained glances at their companions. When the lights come up at the finale, more than a few patrons head straight for the exit.
These are vexing times for opera companies across the country.
In some respects, the art form seems to be enjoying the sort of pop cultural “moment” that it hasn’t experienced since the heyday of the Three Tenors in the mid-1990s. At last month’s Super Bowl, for instance, soprano superstar Renee Fleming earned raves as the first opera singer to perform the national anthem in that event’s history.
And in recent years, the reality show America’s Got Talent has launched the careers of a pair of “pop opera” crossover acts: now 14-year-old Jackie Evancho, who first performed on the show in 2010; and last season’s fourth-place finisher, Forte, a trio that has earned comparisons to the hugely popular, Simon Cowell-created quartet Il Divo.
In presenting edgy modern works such as Death and the Powers, or employing social media and digital apps to reach wider audiences, companies are trying to seize this moment and help to cultivate a new generation of opera-goers.
Except there’s little evidence that their efforts are having an impact. In January, journalist Mark Vanhoenacker published a much-talked-about article in Slate headlined “Requiem: Classical Music in America is Dead.” With classical music CD purchases plummeting, the average age of concertgoers steadily rising and classical music radio stations disappearing, Vanhoenacker concluded that “the last generation to broadly love classical music may simply be aging, like World War I veterans, out of existence.”
Last fall, the venerable New York City Opera shuttered after being unable to raise enough money to resolve a multimillion-dollar budget deficit. Other companies that have gone under in recent years include Baltimore Opera, the Opera San Antonio and Opera Boston.
In January, New York City’s Metropolitan Opera — the country’s largest and most prestigious opera organization — announced that box-office revenue had dropped in its previous season (only 69 percent of potential revenue had been earned, compared with about 80 percent most years). The company also said it had racked up a budget deficit of $2.8 million for the season.
Closer to home, the news is even more worrisome: In 2011, the Dallas Opera scaled back its season from five productions to four, in response to declining donations and box-office revenue. Although the company appears to have once again found its financial footing, it won’t return to a full, five-opera schedule until next season.
Meanwhile, in February, Fort Worth Opera — which in recent years has been widely praised in opera circles for putting forth an ambitious mixture of classics and more adventurous fare, like last year’s Vietnam-era chamber opera, Glory Denied — announced that it had crashed into its own financial brick wall. In order to keep the company solvent, general director Darren Woods is cutting more than $1 million from the operating budget. The world premiere of an opera it had commissioned, based on Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, has been canceled.
So, which is it? Is opera actually thriving and connecting to new, less stodgy audiences? Or is the entire art form on a slow but inexorable slide into oblivion?
The answer probably lies somewhere in between — but that’s still cold comfort for those who love opera and care about its future.
“It seems to me that the question should be, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a problem, but how are we going to deal with it?’ ” says Joshua Kosman, classical music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. “The answer can’t be, ‘Oh, no, this is all completely going away; this is about to die.’ To invoke the death spiral, that doesn’t seem like anything that can possibly be useful.”
Donations have stalled
In many respects, the stories of the Dallas and Fort Worth opera companies are microcosms for what’s happening at large and medium companies around the country. Professional opera can be extremely expensive to mount, and the charitable donations that sustained many companies in recent decades seems to have dried up.
“Most of the corporate support has just vanished,” says Fort Worth Opera’s Woods. Noting that local companies like Alcon and XTO have changed their charitable focus, Woods adds: “I don’t think it’s ever going to come back. We’re all leaning harder and harder on the individual donors.”
The problem with relying upon individual donors, Woods says, is that it requires a great deal of patience — it usually takes an average of five to seven years to cultivate new donors. And even when ticket sales hold steady or gradually increase from year to year (as has been the case since Fort Worth Opera shifted from a year-round season to its three-week festival format in 2007), the revenue generated simply isn’t enough. Woods says that if Fort Worth Opera had to rely solely on ticket sales to meet its annual budget, every seat in Bass Hall would have to be priced at $580 — and every performance in the festival would have to sell out.
Then there is, arguably, the biggest challenge of all: How do you entice a new generation of potential ticket buyers when you have to compete with countless other forms of media, and when many younger people tend to view opera as something antiquated and alienating?
“The comparison I make is to a sports franchise,” says Keith Cerny, general director and CEO of Dallas Opera. “On the one level, everyone is experiencing the same game. But then within the stadium, some people have elaborate suites, and some people have cheap seats — and some people prefer to stay at home to watch it.
“If you look at successful sports teams, they will slice and dice their events to appeal to as many different audiences as possible.”
For Dallas Opera, that “slicing and dicing” has meant free simulcasts of works with broad appeal at AT&T Stadium (its Barber of Seville will be simulcast there April 11), and altering the annual programming to “combine classics with cutting-edge operas, with an unjustly neglected gem,” Cerny says.
Among the audience-outreach innovations Fort Worth Opera has introduced in recent years is a regular series called “Opera Shots,” in which “opera karaoke sung by actual opera singers” is staged at local bars.
Beginning this month, the company will be particularly busy: The biennial McCammon Voice Competition, put on by the Opera Guild of Fort Worth, takes place Friday and Saturday at the Kimbell Art Museum and Bass Hall; 30 young singers will compete for a prize package that includes $15,000 and a role in a Fort Worth Opera production. (Although it’s not officially a Fort Worth Opera event, the company provides support, and Woods will serve as one of the judges.)
This year’s Fort Worth Opera festival will kick off April 19, with four operas on the schedule: Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers; Mozart’s Così fan tutte; Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s Silent Night; and the world premiere of Daniel Crozier and Peter M. Krask’s With Blood, With Ink, about the life of 17th-century nun Juana Inés de la Cruz.
Meanwhile, April 20, the company will present a performance by the pop-opera trio Forte — the group’s first appearance in North Texas. Sean Panikkar, one of Forte’s members, is also appearing in this season’s production of The Pearl Fishers.
“One of the things I think Fort Worth Opera has had success with is making everyone feel they have access, no matter what kind of opera you might be interested in,” says Woods. In bringing Forte to Fort Worth, Woods says, the company “is giving people the opportunity to see the star of one of our shows in another light.”
Doomsaying about the fate of various art forms is certainly nothing new — and hardly exclusive to classical music. Jules Verne predicted the death of the novel all the way back in 1902. In 1951, screenwriter Ben Hecht compared Hollywood filmmaking to the “crumbling pyramids of Egypt.”
But opera is different from other arts and entertainment categories; the people who love opera the most are sometimes the ones who resist its evolution most vigorously.
“It’s funny how classical music cannibalizes our own,” says Woods. “All of a sudden when Sean Panikkar was on television, so many people in our industry said he sold out.”
Notes Panikkar, in an interview from London where he was singing in a Royal Albert Hall production of La Bohème: “The old guard says that what Forte does is not real opera singing. But the thing that’s different about us is that I’m still working as an opera singer. And anything that brings new people in is good for opera overall.”
Some critics argue that opera companies have relied on the classic repertoire for too long — and that the current focus on modern opera may be an instance of too little, too late. Brian Kellow, features editor of Opera News, says that between 1967 and 1991, the Metropolitan Opera presented not a single new opera — and the same was true for most other American companies during that time.
“If there had been an ongoing atmosphere of experimentation and replenishing the repertoire in the opera community, more like they had in Europe, I don’t think we’d be in this position,” he says.
The other problem opera companies seem to be facing is a surfeit of self-consciousness: All this hand-wringing about whether the art form is still valid tends to take focus from the art form itself. In a rebuttal of sorts to the Slate article, The Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette compared the uncertain future of opera to the equally bedeviled field of journalism, ultimately concluding, “young musicians, more and more, are the ones asking questions about what kind of careers they can hope for — and coming up with new answers. Just as young journalists are.”
But just as many print newspapers and magazines around the country use ever-thinning resources to create iPad apps and online video and the like, there is the question of whether some opera companies are in danger of heading down a kind of digital-age rabbit hole.
For Death and the Powers, the Dallas Opera used an MIT-designed app that allowed people to watch a simulcast of one of the performances on mobile devices while interacting with others watching the simulcast at the same time. Other companies, like Palm Beach Opera, have been inviting audiences to final dress rehearsals and then encouraging them to tweet throughout the performance.
In trying to connect with an audience that simply may have no interest in the art form, are opera presenters drifting further afield from their core mission?
“I think it’s a huge folly to be chasing after this younger audience,” says Kellow. “I think there’s an air of desperation about it. And I think what a lot of presenters should be doing instead is trying to lead with a stronger programming point of view.”
Some good news
Make no mistake, there is some genuinely heartening news for opera lovers, beyond Fleming’s Super Bowl appearance. In late 2006, the Metropolitan Opera launched its “Live in HD” series, which shows live simulcasts of Met performances in movie theaters around the world. The program has proved hugely popular — the simulcasts in the auditorium at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth regularly sell out — and now reaches north of 500,000 viewers for each performance.
Some critics, too, argue that more young people are interested in becoming opera singers; and that as once-traditional companies like Fort Worth Opera continue to commission new works such as With Blood, With Ink, opportunities exist for exposure for the work of emerging composers.
“New music has taken off,” notes the San Francisco Chronicle’s Kosman. “In some ways, things looked a lot grimmer when I began writing about classical music 30 years ago.”
As to whether enough members of this rising generation will be able to make a living in opera — and whether there will be a large enough audience still willing to pay to listen to them — remains to be seen.
Opera may not be dying, but it needs some critical care if it hopes to remain healthy into the future.
“It’s daunting and beleaguering,” Woods says. “But then I think about our production last year of Glory Denied, when you get an entire room full of people talking about war and justice, and grown men are brought to tears. That’s something real.
“I believe what we do is transcendent and holy, and I’m going to breathe my last breath doing it.”