Philadelphia’s Changing Opera Landscape

Philadelphia’s Changing Opera Landscape

This week, Opera America will hold its 2012 conference in Philadelphia, with a focus on new works and innovative strategies. It is fitting that this conference should take place in Philadelphia, which in the past few years has become a center for new opera in the United States.

Written By

Mimi Stillman


Soprano Tamara Mumford (kneeling) and soprano Elizabeth Reiter in the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s U.S. Premiere of Henze’s Phaedra in 2011. (Photo by Kelly & Massa Photography)

This week, Opera America will hold its 2012 conference in Philadelphia, with a focus on new works and innovative strategies. It is fitting that this conference should take place in Philadelphia, which in the past few years has become a center for new opera in the United States. This is a significant change for a town long known for its conservative musical tastes. It was not that long ago that German and French repertoire was considered exotic in an environment which equated opera with traditional Italian fare. Performances of 20th and 21st century opera had been even more of a rarity.

Over the past two seasons, however, the Opera Company of Philadelphia (OCP) made international waves when it presented two operas by the iconic German composer Hans Werner Henze and announced a plan to present ten new American operas in the next ten years. In 2011, they launched an innovative collaborative Composer In Residence Program, together with New York partners Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group, funded by a Mellon grant of $1.4 million over five years.

Why this burst of new opera? David Devan, OCP’s general director, decided to steer the company in this direction when he came on board as managing director in 2005. His first task, he said, was to consider the role opera should play in Philadelphia. “It is the original American city, in that the United States started here. Opera has to embrace the ethos of the community in which it is performed,” so American repertoire would be a natural fit. Furthermore, “in my work on the board of Opera America, I subscribe to the idea of ‘churn’: that the genre must stay alive through the creation of new work, to prevent the music industry from stagnating.”

Margaret Garner at OCP

A scene from Margaret Garner, an Opera Company of Philadelphia co-commission from composer Richard Danielpour and librettist Toni Morrison which debuted at the Academy of Music in February 2006. (Photo by Kelly & Massa Photography)

The OCP team developed a plan to keep opera viable in the dense Philadelphia music market. With the Metropolitan Opera a short drive away, and opera companies in Baltimore (until 2009) and Washington, D.C. within striking distance, Devan said OCP decided that opera in Philadelphia must take a “diverse and different path,” and that the company needed to curate carefully to provide offerings that would give audiences different choices and draw them in. Then-General Director Robert Driver started OCP on this new path by bringing to fruition the company’s first commission in 25 years, Richard Danielpour’s opera Margaret Garner, which received its East Coast premiere at OCP in 2006. The Opera Company underwent a strategic analysis process in 2007-08 and decided to adopt a new branding key for OCP. Informally, Devan describes it as a shift from the company serving as the Turner Classic Movies of opera to being its HBO.

Just when the plan was going to be implemented, however, the financial crisis of 2008 hit. “Funding dropped in all areas, but it was important to us to make it easy for people to keep opera in their lives,” Devan said. To weather the recession, OCP engaged in an act of “creative destruction,” eliminating one production from their regular season in the Academy of Music (the home of the company), and adding the new Aurora Series at the more intimate Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center. At 650 seats, the Perelman seats less than a quarter of the audience of the 2900-seat Academy of Music, but it enabled OCP to stage newer and experimental works at half the cost. According to Devan, productions in the Academy of Music cost around $2 million, for five performances, while those in the Perelman total around $1 million for three to five performances. The Aurora Series, which has included performances of Berg’s Wozzeck, Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, and Henze’s Phaedre and Elegy for Young Lovers, has seen strong ticket sales. Devan reports that the mean age of OCP’s audiences has dropped over the past five years, and though such demographic trends are difficult to track with certainty, he attributes this to the Aurora Series reaching out to new audiences, more design-driven productions on both series that showcase a diversity of artistic aesthetics, and an emphasis on emerging talent: singers, composers, and directors.

Barber Anthony and Cleopatra

A scene from the Curtis Opera Theatre’s production of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra in 2010, performed in association with the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts at the Perelman Theater. (Photo by Pete Checchia)

Devan noted that international media attention to OCP has increased exponentially due to several factors, starting with the Composer In Residence Program, which has drawn significant attention in the field. Other companies are following Philadelphia’s lead by creating training programs for composers. OCP’s announcement about producing ten new American works, starting with Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain and Theodore Morrison’s Oscar, co-commissioned with Santa Fe Opera, also boosted the buzz, as did the fact that the 2012 Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Kevin Puts for his opera Silent Night, slated for the 2012-2013 season. In addition, OCP will present Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters, a co-commission with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group, this month.

OCP traditionally fosters the careers of young singers who emerge from Philadelphia’s top opera training institutions—the Curtis Institute of Music and the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA). OCP’s partnership with the Curtis opera department, which began in 2008 with a performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, has also made possible the mounting of newer operas performed by Curtis’s talented and versatile student singers and orchestra. Mikael Eliasen, director of Curtis’s opera department since 1988, explained how this partnership, which provides OCP with lower costs while enabling Curtis students to perform at the Perelman, came about. Normally too expensive for Curtis to rent, the Perelman has a bigger pit than Curtis’s regular venue and therefore allows for more adventurous, experimental scorings. Eliasen had worked closely over the years with Robert Driver, who assumed the title of artistic director of OCP last year, after 20 years as its general director. Together, they had created an unofficial relationship in which Curtis students would sing small roles in OCP productions, prior to the official partnership. In fall 2011, Eliasen was appointed artistic advisor to OCP, in which capacity he assists in selecting the Composer In Residence, further solidifying the close artistic ties between OCP and Curtis.


A scene from the Curtis Opera Theatre area premiere of Golijov’s Ainadamar in 2008, performed in association with the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts at the Perelman Theater. (Photo by David Swanson)

Curtis’s opera singers regularly perform new American opera under the guidance of Mikael Eliasen. He considers learning new opera repertoire to be of tremendous importance in the careers of young singers and during his tenure he has programmed John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, Copland’s The Tender Land, and Argento’s Postcard from Morocco. A recent Curtis alumnus, bass-baritone Eric Owens, has built a brilliant career in which he is known for his singing of John Adams as well as the canon.

OCP’s relationship with the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) is less formal and less focused on new music than its partnership with Curtis. As Denise Stuart, AVA’s director of marketing and public relations, pointed out, the school emphasizes standard repertoire for its students rather than training them to sing new music specifically.

Training Young Composers of Opera

As for young composers who wish to write operas, Eliasen says, “My big beef is that they may want to write an opera but they don’t know opera; 90% of them don’t know the major 20th century operas – Pelleas et Melisande, Peter Grimes, Dialogues des Carmelites, Wozzeck, Lulu – so there is nothing to inspire them.” As artistic advisor to OCP, he will encourage the young resident composers to study operatic repertoire and learn how to write for the voice in this context. Jennifer Higdon also advises young composers to study as much opera as possible in preparation for writing their own. She has been meeting with Lembit Beecher, OCP’s first composer in residence appointed in 2011, and will be seeing his work and sharing excerpts of her own opera score with him during his residency.

As David Devan noted, many young composers who try to write operas fail, as American music schools leave out training in writing dramatic vocal music. Kyle Bartlett, OCP’s new works administrator, agrees that young composers usually have no idea how to write for the stage, even if they have experience writing vocal music. OCP is currently in the search process for its second composer in residence, who will join Beecher in the program. They are looking for composers with some experience writing vocal music and a dramatic impulse, but not composers who are already so successful they do not need support, such as composers with publishers or numerous commissions.

Defining the “New” and the Future of Opera

Philadelphia is also home to another professional opera company specifically devoted to new works, Center City Opera Theater (CCOT), founded by Andrew Kurtz in 1999. According to its mission statement, the company is “the only professional opera company in the United States whose primary mission is the creation and production of new work.” The company gave the world premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Paul Moravec’s Danse Russe, and regional premieres of Mark Adamo’s Little Women and Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men.

Dorian Gray

Jorge Garza as Dorian Gray in the Center City Opera’s production of Lowell Liebermann’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (Photo courtesy CCO)

When asked how CCOT defines its role in a city with so much new music and now new opera, Kurtz replied that “our mission is unique. New work. New artists. New audiences. AVA and Curtis do fine work, but they are still schools, their musical choices are still bound by the students they accept. OCP is still grand opera. I am thrilled they have made a commitment to new work, but it isn’t their primary function, rather they consider it a “product line.” It also represents a smaller percentage of their focus. And while they are partners in these new works, the primary developmental work isn’t being done in Philly by OCP professionals, but other partner companies. For CCOT, we have carved out a national niche of creating new work.”

Dark Sisters

Soprano Caitlin Lynch stars as Eliza in the OCP’s latest production, Dark Sisters, by Nico Muhly and Stephen Karam, which tells the story of a woman who desires to leave a polygamist marriage. (Photo © 2011 Richard Termine)

Devan thinks that “we are at an evolutionary point in opera which will lead to the increase in original material.” Higdon also sounds an optimistic note, calling opera “the area of most growth in classical music, with lots of commissioning and therefore an intensive financial commitment. Orchestras are backing away from contemporary music for fear of financial stress, but opera is charging ahead.”

Mikael Eliasen, however, sees ominous signs for the future of opera in America. While it looks like opera is thriving with commissioning activity, “opera in a way is slowly being killed off.” He describes American opera as “unrelentingly conservative” and thinks that American composers are writing opera based on what they think audiences and boards want to hear, and that boards are constantly shying away from experimental sounds in fear of declining ticket sales. Eliasen successfully urged OCP to present Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face as part of the 2012-2013 season. He cites Adès, who is British, and the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino as examples of people creating more adventurous operas in Europe, and whose works are seldom staged in the United States. He thinks opera companies should take bigger chances, trust their audiences more, identify and reach out to the right audiences for each work, and understand that this process will take time and skill from marketing departments.

It was clear in speaking with the leaders of Philadelphia’s opera ecosystem that what constitutes “experimental” and “adventurous” repertoire is highly subjective. Ultimately, it becomes a question of definitions, as each of the opera experts has his or her own take on these terms. Not only do they disagree on aesthetic and stylistic grounds, but the question of perception is crucial. What do administrators and boards think the audience wants to hear? How do they serve loyal subscribers as well as seek out new audiences? Do the people commissioning and programming new American opera put the artistic vision first and rely on marketing to bring in audiences, or do they let considerations of audience and funder taste drive the artistic decisions? These are the questions being asked in all areas of the music industry. In Philadelphia, a city quickly becoming a center for new American opera, these questions are being posed for the first time. The more new American operas that are born in the city, the more opportunities there will be for the issues facing the genre to develop and evolve alongside them.


Mimi Stillman

Mimi Stillman by Steve Anderson Photography

Philadelphia-based flutist Mimi Stillman, is the founder and artistic director of Dolce Suono Ensemble. A Yamaha Performing Artist, she performs internationally as a soloist and a chamber musician. A writer on music and history, she is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and holds an MA in history from the University of Pennsylvania. In the fall of 2011, Odyssey: 11 American Premieres for Flute and Piano, her 2 CD set recorded with pianist Charles Abramovic, was released on Innova.