Downsizing Opera?

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Frederica von Stade and Keith Phares in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers; SFO Production Photo by Kristen Loken

The times have never been as dark and uncertain for composers of new operatic works. That was made clear when Metropolitan Opera General Director Peter Gelb recently announced he was replacing the premiere of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles with a less costly revival of La Traviata next season. Couple that with the fact that opera companies with shaky finances are closing doors, while others on solid footing are shrinking seasons, and you have a perfect storm of gloom for new works. But every crisis presents its opportunities. And the times suggest that the less costly but not often performed smaller-forces opera, also known as chamber opera, may be entering its heyday.

“I think these kind of operas are attractive and cost-friendly,” said David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera. Gockley’s fondness for them was evident in his programming the West Coast premiere of Jake Heggie’s new two-act opera, Three Decembers, in December. Based on the play Some Christmas Letters by Terence McNally, Three Decembers is intimate opera of truly modest proportions. A co-commission and co-production between San Francisco Opera, Cal Performances, and the Houston Grand Opera, the work demands that 11 musicians grace the rear of the stage while its cast of three singers, which in the premiere production included the venerable Frederica von Stade, do the singing. The opera was performed at the University of California at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. Sets were limited to things like bridge railings, podiums, and a dresser and chairs. The cost for the production was roughly $300,000 as compared to the $5 million price tag for a large mainstage production, Gockley said.

This isn’t the first time Gockley has programmed the premiere of a smaller-forces opera. He programmed Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata in 2005, and other small format operas, like Jackie O by Michael Daugherty, during his tenure as general director of the Houston Grand Opera.

One of the limiting factors to the presentation of new and smaller-scaled works is the lack of an appropriate venue, Gockley claims. “One of our great needs is a smaller proscenium house available for an extended run.” In Houston, he had the luxury of mounting such productions in the 1,000 seat Cullen Theater, which is the smaller sister to the larger 2,500-seat Brown Theater. Most opera companies do not have that option, however. In San Francisco, Gockley has yet to find the appropriate space for these works. Performing them at the 3,200 seat War Memorial Opera House is clearly not an option.

“Finding venues in a city is hard because if you’re going to produce in a traditional way, with an orchestra in a pit and scenery onstage, and fly space, those kinds of venues are not easy to find,” said Marc Scorca, president of the national service organization Opera America. But the issue of space is moot without good product, Scorca believes. “A composer has to write what he or she is compelled to write. Let’s not confuse less expensive with less quality. People are seeking quality right now.” He pointed to Benjamin Britten as a composer who excelled at large and smaller-format works. “I think he was smart enough to know that size was an issue in opera, and that works that required smaller forces might get performed more often. So it is wise for someone composing today to avoid composing for double orchestra and double chorus.”

One of the companies that has carved out a successful niche at programming the smaller-forces opera is New York City’s Gotham Chamber Opera. The company has commissioned an opera by Nico Muhly that is scheduled for its 2011 season when it celebrates its 10th anniversary, said Neal Goren, the company’s founding artistic director and conductor. That work will have a Britten-sized orchestra of 14 musicians and will be performed at the Abrams Art Center’s Harry de Jur theater in Lower Manhattan. The space, which opened in 2001, is tailor made for chamber operas as it accomodates 350 patrons, and Gotham has presented six U.S. premieres of 18th- and 20th-century operas there to date. While the company is not averse to the occasional commission, its major focus is performing rarely seen works like Mozart’s 1771 Il Sogno di Scipione or the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu’s 1928 Dada-infused opera Les Larmes du couteau (The Tears of the Knife).

“Commissions are hideously expensive,” said Goren. Unlike a regular production, the company must absorb the costs of workshopping the opera and copying. “A commission will cost three times what a normal production costs. So we will not consider another commission until this one is over.” Goren also said that a company’s likelihood to do new and smaller works depends on the kinds of contracts it has with its musicians. “If you have a company that is required to pay a full orchestra of 70 players for a certain number of performances a year, you don’t win anything by subbing it with a 25-player production, because you have to pay your other performers as well.” Ultimately, companies that have contracts paying musicians per performance will be the ones that have the freedom to explore the less expensive nature of chamber opera.

According to Goren, “The most savvy of composers is someone like a Mark Adamo, whose chamber opera Little Women is of such manageable size that it can be done in conservatories.” That production has been mounted many times, as it fits the needs of conservatories which are always in need of repertoire for their students, especially works that call for female roles.

But that is not to say that opera on a grand scale is a closed door for composers, regardless of the expenses involved. Jake Heggie made his mark with his first opera Dead Man Walking which is extremely elaborate. In fact, Heggie admits: “When I wrote Dead Man Walking, I thought the piece would never be done because it is so huge, requires such large forces, and is a new work. But it has already been done 120 times.”

Heggie believes that chamber opera has never been an easy sell. “Benjamin Britten wrote some of the best operas ever and those are still tough sells, even though those works are now 50 years old, or older.” Nonetheless, Heggie remains cautiously optimistic about the art form. “The great thing about chamber opera is that it is a wonderfully different experience. It’s an art form I love because it’s so intimate and yet you’re dealing with this huge emotional scale.” And as a result of its intimacy, it has the potential to bring in new audiences. “I do find that younger audiences are more open to it. Everyone loves the spectacle you get with grand opera, but I think there is more of an openness for audiences in getting into opera with smaller forces.”

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Edward Ortiz

Edward Ortiz is the classical music and opera critic for the Sacramento Bee. Prior to joining the Bee, he worked as staff reporter for the Boston Globe and the Providence Journal, and is a contributor to the website San Francisco Classical Voice.