What REALLY happened to opera?

There's a list going around from Buzzfeed called "What Happened to Opera?"

It's a post that really focuses on 1 thing- Hey, look at how the costumes and sets of opera have changed! And how hot all the singers look! Here's Renee Fleming singing Strauss! She's awesome!

And Anna Letrebko doing Lehar! Look at that beautiful gown! AND THE VOICE!

Let's not forget Diana Danrau as Queen of the Night! Holy Crap, how can she even sing in that outfit!

The post goes on through many notables; Joyce DiDonato, Jonas Kaufmann, Juan Diego Florez, Dolora Zajick, and so forth.

It's great that a site like Buzzfeed put together a list of great opera singers doing (somewhat) modern takes on classic songs.

But it does beg the question "WHAT HAPPENED TO OPERA?!?"

I don't mean this in a "oh, the by-gone days of it's greatness are gone," but in the "what the hell does this actually mean about opera?" Does it mean that opera is only about the singers? Look at all these fabulous singers!

Or is it about the sets and costumes? This is cutting edge stuff people!

Ya know what I think this post says?

It says "We can keep finding new ways to do the same song that's been out since 1791!" Sorry Diana Danrau, you nailed it, but GIVE IT A REST!

You can't put a list together of "What Happened to Opera" without even addressing the music! The examples are all classic rep--not one really adventurous aria on the whole page. Not one work by a living composer even!

It's like they're saying "No one WRITES opera, so we have to come up with new ways to do the same thing you've seen a million times before!"

So, here's MY LIST of "What Happened to Opera?" Instead of focusing on amazing singers (mostly very attractive ones at that), and fancy sets, I'm going to look at fantastic singers singing some modern repertoire! Because, at its heart, opera IS music. If you're going to have a conversation about how it's changed, and not at least toss in some MUSIC to show that, then you've failed miserably.


I could choose a thousand thousand operas for this, but I'll go with a man that made English language opera what it is today: hopefully the only dead guy on the list, Benjamin Britten!

And from his rep a million choices. But why not show a scene from the BBC movie version of his opera Turn of the Screw, adapted from the novel by Henry James

2)  Opera changes with the musical times!

Oh man...this is a book in and of itself. but why not show some fun examples?

Let's start with a German guy that even predates Britten...But his style was ahead of its time. Wozzeck, by Alban Berg

Not my favourite scene, but Wozzeck is slim pickings. The story is pretty amazing.

Oh, not a fan of modernism eh? No problem, there's plenty of styles to choose from!

Minimalism more your thing? Let's take a cue from the King of Minimalism:

Love Duet from Ahkenaten by Phillip Glass. Sorry all, just music on this one!

Pardon the intonation in the trombone. hard line to keep going. and, no, that wasn't me. This recording easily predates my trombone days.

The list goes on and one. Why not grab one more, just for fun? Here's one that's even more contemporary

from L'amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho

So, maybe these aren't your style. I mean, it's still art music after all

3) Opera is a form! It doesn't just mean "classical" music!

alright, let's go straight for the jugular with this one. Anyone seen or heard of

TOMMY by The Who

You'll have to skip a little forward, to about 1:00 in. alright, I'll admit it, I don't much like rock operas. or rock musicals. This coming from a guy that's about to fly to Sweden to study heavy metal...but this should give you a nice tell that it's not just "classical" music

Maybe, like me, you don't always want Wagner, but The Who just don't do it for you. Sometimes, I pull out a different sort of opera. Why not head back to the 30s for another dead guy, but one that set a trend, changed opera and musicals

Summertime, from Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin

it's from the movie version. And, sorry, Sidney Poitier didn't sing the part. Wonderful actor, but not the best singer.

So far, there's been way too many dead guys. There's nothing wrong with dead guys, and this was a bit of rally against them, right?


how about some living composers? Well, since we ended with some jazz inspired music, let's head for some more jazz inspired music.

from Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie

It's pretty romantic, but with some jazz style extended harmonies. I went with a pretty one.

And, yes, if the title caught your eye, it is based on the book. But we'll get to that in a minute...

Why not look at an opera that just had a US premiere not too long ago. At the MET no less!

Ariel's Song from Thomas Ades' The Tempest (based on Shakespeare, of course)


If you look at all the old operas, they are inexorably linked to their times. Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking is no exception. There are no exceptions: even if the opera is based on a different time, say Ades using Shakespeare, or Bernard Rands telling the story of Vincent Van Gogh, the messages are tied to todays world. And sorry, no copy of Van Gogh on the internet yet--it was just premiered last year! SEE, IT'S STILL HAPPENING!

But enough of that. Let's take one example, just one from the myriad of choices. One of my favourite arias of all time

This is Prophetic from Nixon in China by John Adams

This came out in 1987, about 15 years after Nixon's historic trip...but the questions posed and ideas espoused were very much on people's minds in 1987.

Adams is known for these works: Dr. Atomic and The Death of Klinghoffer just to name two more.

And let's not forget multiculturalism. Why, since we went to China, why not talk about 2 composers of Chinese descent with amazing operas?

The Shadow Haunts Me Wherever I Go from The First Emperor by Tan Dun. Placido Domingo anyone?

And how about a link to a Zhou Long's opera, Madame White Snake. IT WON A PULITZER, AFTER ALL!

Sorry, no vid, but a link to the WGBH Feature!


opera doesn't necessarily mean giant sets, 3 hour long shows, or the most lavish costumes you've ever seen. I can name three performances/companies that I'm associated with that make opera with much smaller means...and do an amazing job!

a) Remarkable Theater Brigade. If you're in NYC and follow what happens at Carnegie Hall, their "Opera Shorts" program is probably known to you. I participated in what was, basically, the trial run of this format for RTB back in 2009. And it was a smashing success.

Notice that next year they're featuring Ricky Ian Gordon and a name already mentioned as an amazing performer, Dolora Zajick!

Yep, they're producing NEW WORKS by LIVING COMPOSERS, and bringing them to you in 10-15 minute one acts!

b) Intimate Opera of Indianapolis.  You'll notice most of the posts I've made have either been from a coast or Houston (KUDOS TO HOUSTON GRAND OPERA FOR ALL THE WORK PROMOTING LIVING COMPOSERS!). But if you're in the heartland of the US that doesn't mean that exciting opera opportunities aren't there for you!

IOI has a great season running full of amazing works. If you're in Indy, you need to go. Especially in November. I may be in Sweden, but folks in the US will get a chance to hear my first opera, Cake, for the first time in 4+ years! Yes, this is the opera that was on the very first RTB opera shorts, and now IOI has picked it up for its Opera Shots, Black Friday, program!

c) Black House Collective and Kansas City Electronic Music and Arts Alliance. Hey, Kansas City, you love the arts. You love new music, jazz, and installations. You even like electronic music! Why not put it together?!?

In a truly adventurous collaboration, Black House and KcEMA teamed up to commission and premiere 6 brand spanking new one act operas! These are all scored for chamber ensembles and electronics! No huge stage, no 50 person chorus, no 50 person pit. Small space, exciting action, and new music!

The program is entitled "Rites of Being" and will run May 16th and 17th. it includes a world premiere of my second one act opera, Till Coffee Do Us Part. Purchase seated tickets in advance (link to brownpapertickets.com event page). Standing room available day of, but don't take your chances.

Alright, this is far from comprehensive. There are tons of amazing operas happening now, all over the world.  Why don't we get the comments rolling?

What contemporary operas do you love? What groups are supporting new operas? Let's spread the love and let people see "WHAT HAS REALLY HAPPENED TO OPERA!"


hard to believe it...

This month has been absolutely insane. Just, over the top insane. To summarize the basic set of events dating from around March 15th till now.

  • Officially got accepted to EMS 13, sent in the "Hell yeah I'm going to Lisbon" form, and started prep on the presentation

  • Got accepted to June in Buffalo, made the parts, sent everything out! WOOO, look out Buffalo!

  • Had a blog post go VIRAL. It's at just a tad under 12,000 hits. What's really important is that it catapulted the discussion about orchestra strikes and the state of orchestras! It's been quite the experience--I've seen all sides of people in the argument, heard tons of opinions, and have continuously gotten surprised by people (both good and bad).

  • had a play chosen for a professional production here in KC! Check out inTENsity 2.0! It's going to be a night to remember! Ten one act plays by nine amazing playwrights, and me! w00t!

  • Rites of Being, a night of new one act operas presented by Black House Collective and the Kansas City Electronic Music and Arts Alliance is well under-way. I'll be conducting all six new operas, around 100 minutes of brand spanking new music! My arms are tired, my brain dies every Sunday, but it's a fabulous experience! Show hits are May 16th and 17th at Paragraph Gallery, 12th and Walnut, Kansas City, MO

  • and, the biggest news of all...FULBRIGHT! Just heard Friday my proposal has been accepted! now to do all the crazy work involved to get to Stockholm, Sweden. This is an amazing opportunity that I never would have imagined possible. It never would have happened without the support of some outstanding people including Dr. Linna Place, Dr. Paul Rudy, Dr. James Mobberly, and Dr. William Everett...and many many more! Holy crap, I'M GOING TO SWEDEN!!!! 


Closing Arguments

The Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony ratified a compromised agreement with management. This is great news for the musicians, and the symphony at large. You can go through the full break down in the musicians press release.

Since this has come to an end, I'll put my closing arguments on this particular strike as well. This isn't to say that my time blogging the political and social affairs in music is over...far from it. The conversations that have occurred thanks to this strike, and the unexpected notoriety of this blog, have really sparked a great many ideas in my head. But for now, closing arguments.

--First off, I want to send a special thank you to Tim Higgins. He took the time to email me, and have a correspondance regarding the strike and answered questions I've had about the strike. I've waited far too long to reply to his last email, but without the back and forth we had (while both being extremely busy, meaning the few emails we were able to shoot off) I couldn't write this post.

--He pointed out that I wasn't giving enough credit to the development and marketing departments. And, that is definitely true! For a group such as San Francisco to hit the $300 Million mark in their endowment, and keep up ticket sales, those groups must be doing a fantastic job. 

It did come across a bit that I was against all the administrative positions in symphonies. This just isn't true at all. They are hardworking people, many of whom are musicians on some level, and entered into the administration side. They see this as an opportunity to continue working in something they believe in, and provide amazing support. All these people deserve our respect.

But it's also important to remember, what is the point of an orchestra, and how do we achieve it. See my last post for some thoughts on that.

--As I mentioned, you can go point through point in the breakdown of the contract on this page. To summarize, pay will go through a modest increase of the next five years (up 4.5%). This come close to offsetting the increased payment into benefits, but not quite. The symphony shot down all the "draconian cuts" and got a reasonably fair contract.

In the spirit of cooperation, I'm happy a contract got ratified that doesn't break anyone. In the spirit of my profession, I'm still worried. At the end of the day, they musicians still lose a little money. Management set up a negotiation where a win became "we didn't have to take huge cuts, therefore we win!" instead of "our demands for pay equality were met, so we win!" This was, in some ways, an artificially created situation. Meaning, what were management's real motives? I highly doubt it was their actual demands. There I go into conspiracy theory again, but it is a normal tactic. "If we shoot really high, and get a small portion of what we want, we still win."

--It came out that management was pushing the cuts early on. And that the executive director didn't even meet with the musicians until they went on strike. The group handling negotiations was inexperienced. And it wasn't until an arbitrator was brought in that progress was made.

This screams "attack pattern alpha" on the part of management. They didn't want huge cuts. They wanted small cuts. Probably, they wanted something specific, for the musicians to pay into benefits at the same level of administration, which would save a fairly large sum of money. Now, that's not completely unreasonable. 

But what if there wasn't really a financial reason? What if they had been operating at large profits and growing their endowment? How do you convince anyone to pay more into something when they don't really HAVE to?

You start a hard negotiating stance. Start with "take 40% pay cut" and go from there. That way, when musicians work back to "no pay cut, but we'll pay into benefits" it seems like a win.

And hold out your guns. What's with symphonies negotiating with underlings, or not even having a director (The ISO went into negotiations with three top management positions vacant)? It's holding back your guns. It gives you a "Oh, I'm sorry, these people didn't understand the negotiations well enough." You get the parent coming in to save the day. take a rational stance, and you'll win.

--Symphonies are becoming meritocracies...without actually giving bonuses for merit. "You have to do X, Y, and Z to keep your pay and benefits." "But we won a Grammy and have huge CD sales!" "but we only grew the endowment 5% instead of 7%" "But...I'm not directly tied to that! All I can do is perform amazingly, and try to get a little personal advertising" "And you didn't do enough of that!" "BUT WE HAVE A MARKETING DEPARTMENT!!!"

This feels like a real conversation. It's similar to what teachers are dealing with. Somehow, it's our fault that universities aren't making money. 1) neither organization is about making money (see previous post). 2) It's placing the wrong conditions on the workers to increase pay!
Think about a job we can all feel for--cashier at a chain store. Let's say your raise was tied to another department. Electronics has to do a 3% increase in sales, or you don't get a raise. But you don't work in electronics, you work front end. How can you increase sales in electronics? All of a sudden, you're having to pitch batteries and thumb drives by the check out...and hope no one asks about a watch battery. It's beyond the normal scope of your job, but you're asked to do it, to get a raise.

Or, maybe, if could be tied to having an average checkout score of 95% G (that's a Target thing...). That has to do with your speed of checkout based on number of items. That you CAN control (in some fashion). This is becoming a general trend in business--"your raise is now based on something you cannot control in any way. It's based on merit, but not YOUR merit."

--A clear point here--This strike was NOT about greed. I have heard that so many times over the past few weeks. "They make enough money, they're just being greedy."

I'll just give one example. Let's say you work at a large company. This company is doing extremely well, making billions in profits. BILLIONS. You work somewhere in middle-management, say, store manager. You're doing well for yourself, no doubt. And your store has done extremely well. It comes time for bonuses (they do that instead of raises these days), and what happens? You have the power to give bonuses for your immediate employees. Based on the great sales for the year, you cut everyone a nice little bonus (because this middle manager is an awesome person). And then the District Manager, upper management throughout the company get bonuses from corporate. HUGE bonuses, because, somehow, it was their work.

And the middle manager?

He gets nothing.

Now, does he have a right to complain? The company is doing amazing business. He's a fantastic leader, as shown by his store raking in the cash AND being a decent human being and giving bonuses to his immediate employees. But his boss doesn't give him a raise. Because, somehow, upper management only sees upper management as being important. Middle management often understands the workers make everything run. But the middle guys can get squeezed.

It's similar to what happened with the automotive companies. Big time directors got huge bonuses. Line workers kept themselves afloat thanks to the union (and, yes, there was some major union corruption earlier in the time that helped lead to the crisis). But what about the white collar workers? the engineers? the secretaries?

Thrown to the wind. Pay cuts, benefits gone. Even while huge bonuses went to the highest officials. Is this equitable treatment?

--Final notes/questions: This is all about staying together, not just as a "union" (which I'm not even a member of, btw), but as a community. When one person gets screwed, everyone gets screwed. When one symphony takes cuts when they're not needed, then others will as well. When the max pay for the best symphony is $75K, how much will the smallest one make? Everything is compared, precedence is set, and it could doom things.

There are problems the symphony, in general, needs to address. How does it stay relevant? Where do we find new funds? How do we use technology to aid our fundraising?

It used to be a phone call. Now it's an email. How amazingly easy is it to delete an email without even reading the subject? How many donations are lost that way? Phone calls can be annoying, there's no doubt, but what about other more "personal" communications? What's the best way to reach people?

And what makes people excited?

All questions that need researched and answered. But, there's one thing I do know:

A safe, conservative approach will always fail. When you need to grow, you've got to do something special. And that's not 4 Beethoven pieces in a year, and your featured soloist playing the most ho-hum overplayed solo in the repertoire.

Music, and all art, connects with the generation it was created in. Yes, the best art is timeless. And many pieces created during their time were not. But Telemann was widely popular. So was Salieri. And Meyerbeer. Time will tell who lasts forever, but without those people, the people writing music of their time, that connected with people. Not "popular" music in the vulgar sense (there were plenty of dances, songs, and folk music outside of Paris' French Grand Opera) but music that captures that moment and may not last forever.

That momentary music is important. It's important to play it at least once, or else no one will even know if it's going to last forever.

So make truly exciting programs. Take chances. It may turn out to be nothing by kitsch, or it may end up being something truly sublime. But reserve judgement until you've at least given it a shot!