Trekking Through American Opera (Part Two)

By John Vandevert
(Photo Credits: Karen Almon/Metropolitan Opera)

Throughout this new series, we will be looking at the history of American opera, beginning in the 2000s through to the present, through revisiting certain iconic works of the past two decades and OperaWire’s coverage of them throughout the 21st century. In part one, we looked at the developments of the 2000s. In part two, we will be looking at five operas that reflect the change in operatic writing, both musically and thematically, during the 2010s. 

In terms of classical music, the 2010s were a time of great development and reconceptualization of what the future could be. The long talked about “death of classical music,” something musicologist Dr. Charles Rosen ironically argued was a continuous idee fixe of public discourse, resulted in numerous different strategies employed to reinvigorate interest in classical music. From the rediscovery of neglected composers to the use of contemporary topics to reflect the world in which the music is created, the 2010s was a renaissance of sorts. So important was the period towards the  ‘second birth’ of classical music, in fact, that despite cuts to music education being suffered throughout the decade, new ways to connect to classical music emerged, such as video sharing platforms like YouTube, and streaming platforms like Spotify.

Regarding opera, the decade was punctuated with smaller forms like chamber operas and a focus on several key questions. Namely, whose stories were being told and whose were not? What kinds of composers were getting programmed and who was not getting attention? In what ways did the operatic stories reflect the world in which they lived? The question of accessibility grew in importance as well, and attempts to engage with communities and audiences through innovative strategies like VR, online broadcasts (which have become an essential part of the contemporary operatic ecology), and outreach initiatives, became (and remain) essential elements of opera’s new reality. Further, grant programs for women composers and BIPOC composers, the restaging of early operas in new ways, and a focus on young composers and new methods of operatic writing—essentially a reworking of the canon itself—breathed new life into opera. In 2019, COVID-19 began, but this only inspired opera houses to further restrategize how opera was to be brought to the public, while, for composers, the question was what composing for online audiences meant in practice.

Moby Dick (2010)

Premiered in 2010 by the Dallas Opera, Jake Heggie’s fourth opera follows the 1851 novel of the same name by American novelist Herman Melville, and concludes with the death at the center of the novel. The opera marked an interesting development for American opera by turning attention to American literary works, a turn echoed by other works such as Gregg Kallor’s “Frankenstein” (the focus in this case being upon English literary works). The opera was premiered throughout the 2010s across America and was regarded as a “grand opera for the twenty-first century” by scholar Robert Wallace. To critics, the opera was a triumphant success, so important that the Metropolitan Opera is to bring the opera to its stage during its season next year!

Paul’s Case (2013)

Gregory Spears, to those unaware, is a seminal opera composer of our current generation. As his second opera of a growing body of work, he focused on bringing to light the difficulties of being gay and the arbitrary tension of class differences within the same story. Centered around teen boys, one from the upper class and one from the working class in early 20th century Pittsburgh, his second opera gained critical success for its synthesis of musical styles and drama within an easily movable chamber format. The opera, while a moment in American opera history, demonstrated a new phase in opera’s development from mere entertainment to conscious critique of power itself.    

Bel Canto (2015)

The first opera by Peruvian composer Jimmy López, operatic synthesis takes on a whole new meaning in this opera based on the eponymous 2001 novel by American writer Ann Patchett about the 1996-97 hostage crisis in Lima, Peru. Outside of the opera’s political theme, the opera featured nine different languages, from German to Italian to English, and featured a large cast of 10-plus principle singers. Commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the project involved a great deal of heavy hitters within the musical world including Renee Fleming, Sir Andrew Davis, playwright Nilo Cruz, and singers Danielle de Niese, Jacques Imbrailo, and J’Nai Bridges among other names. 

The Exterminating Angel (2016)

Perhaps the best known opera on this list, as the third opera by British composer Thomas Adès, once premiered at the Haus für Mozart in Austria, the opera began making the rounds worldwide. Based on the eponymous surrealist film by Spanish director Luis Buñuel, the opera made history as the opera to contain the highest written note, an A6, sung during its premiere by Audrey Luna, and during its Danish premiere by Gisela Stille. Featuring an impressive cast that, throughout its premieres, changed quite frequently, the opera made history both domestically and globally as a paradigmatic symbol of contemporary opera innovation, slated to be performed at the Paris Opera House in 2024. 

Akhnaten (2019)

Although not premiered during the 2010s, technically first premiered in 1983 at the Stuttgart State Theatre, in 2019 the opera experienced its post-premiere revival by the Metropolitan Opera. This was a highly publicized event documented around the world. The opera is said to be the third in a trilogy of works, the first two being Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha. This opera focuses on the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep IV, otherwise known as Akhenaten, and includes text from original materials including the Great Hymn to the Aten, a 14th century BCE text that glorifies the sun God Aten, and the texts that are connected to Amenhotep within the Book of the Dead in a fragment known as the Joseph Smith Papyri. 


Special Features