Tag: support

New Horizons, Old Barriers

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

In 1983, the New York Philharmonic presented two weeks of new music programming focused on a single question: “Since 1968, A New Romanticism?” The first of three major Horizons festivals, “The New Romanticism”—curated by the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence Jacob Druckman—was a major box office hit, fueled by a wave of publicity, extensive coverage in the press, and performances of new and recent works by Druckman, David Del Tredici, John Adams, and Luciano Berio. But the significance of Horizons was not only in its examination of the emerging aesthetic trend of neo-Romanticism. Funded by the organization Meet The Composer, the festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace.

The Horizons festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace.

I’m currently in the midst of researching a book project that situates the Horizons festivals within the larger institutional landscape for American new music in the 1980s and early 1990s. When I presented some of my work in Bowling Green at the 2017 New Music Gathering, it centered on the relationship between Horizons and Bang on a Can, an institution that is central to my book. But for this essay, I’d like to shift focus to talk about what Horizons offered, and did not offer, as support for composers entering a new musical marketplace. My brain is a bit too full of information on this topic right now—I’ve spent most of my summer digging into archival collections related to Horizons and interviewing folks who participated in it—but I will try to make this less of an info dump and more of a critical analysis.

Horizons-83

Meet The Composer

The three Horizons festivals—presented by the Philharmonic in 1983, ’84, and ’86—were a key component of one of many orchestral residencies sponsored by Meet The Composer, an advocacy and granting organization established in 1974 by composer John Duffy. Beginning in 1982, MTC established a nationwide composer-in-residence program. Modeled in part after the successful collaboration between the San Francisco Symphony and John Adams, the MTC residencies aimed to, as Duffy told EAR Magazine in 1986, create “visible ways to re-introduce and re-invigorate the whole world of the composer and orchestra.” The organization’s substantial funding was representative of the Reagan-era shifts in support for the arts: it combined public support from the NEA and state councils with foundation money from the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as corporate financing from Exxon. In comparison to the present day, MTC’s imprint was huge; in 1990, The New York Times reported that it gave on average $2.5 million to composers per year; in contemporary buying power, that is more than four times the amount of grant support that New Music USA, MTC’s successor, provides annually today.

The growing presence of MTC significantly shaped the marketplace for new music in the United States and deeply informed the idea of a non-academic “market” to begin with. One of the most startling discoveries in the course of my recent research—and this may not be casual knowledge among younger readers of NewMusicBox—is that, as recently as the 1970s, American composers frequently were not paid at all for commissions. Complaints about writing music “for exposure” were likely as common in the ’70s as they are today; orchestras often got composers to write new works simply by telling them their music would be played, not that they would be financially compensated for their efforts. As an organization, MTC argued vigorously that composers deserved to be paid. The institution’s significant fundraising and financing of the orchestral program—which included a full-time salary for resident composers—provided a more widespread understanding that a commission came with money, not just a guarantee for performance.

Complaints about writing music “for exposure” were likely as common in the ’70s as they are today.

This notion extended into their advocacy work writ large: in 1984, MTC published “Commissioning Music,” a pamphlet for composers and patrons that included guidelines for potential commissioning fees; in 1989, the organization published a handbook titled “Composers in the Marketplace,” with basic information on copyright, performance, publishing, recordings, royalties, and promotion. Soon enough, major funding organizations were taking their cues from MTC; the New York State Council on the Arts’s 1990 program booklet based its commission fee guidelines off of research conducted by the organization. As composers entered the marketplace, MTC helped determine how much they would be paid.

Horizons and the New Romanticism

As part of his MTC residency with the Philharmonic, Jacob Druckman was selected to compose music for the orchestra, advise music director Zubin Mehta on programming, and supervise the large-scale Horizons festivals. For the first festival, he proposed “The New Romanticism,” a curatorial theme steeped in his belief that, since 1968, new music had embraced “sensuality, mystery, nostalgia, ecstasy, and transcendence.” It was a tagline from which the Philharmonic could easily benefit, as subscribers perhaps otherwise fearful of dissonant and disarming contemporary work might relax at the notion that it maintained some continuity with the 19th-century music that typically brought them to the concert hall. Indeed, one Philharmonic advertisement promised “[t]hree weeks that could just change your mind about the meaning of new music.” And a big and provocative theme like “The New Romanticism” was catnip for music critics: dozens of articles were published examining just what this new romanticism might be, and whether it represented a sea change from the academic serialism that was perceived (often stereotypically) as dominant in the world of American composition.

Over two weeks in June 1983, the Horizons festival boldly seized this moment, with six concerts of orchestral music, numerous premieres, several symposia, and a glossy program book. It was a box office phenomenon, with hundreds of people lining up outside Avery Fisher Hall to buy tickets on opening night. An internal memo in the Philharmonic archives noted that the festival “attracted a younger audience—a way of replenishing the audience” and that the success of the festival “OBLITERATES NOTION that no one cares about new music and there is no audience.”

It was a box office phenomenon, with hundreds of people lining up outside Avery Fisher Hall to buy tickets on opening night.

Importantly, Horizons also offered a model for young composers to enter a new orchestral marketplace. The then 23-year-old Aaron Jay Kernis was selected by the Philharmonic to have his work dream of the morning sky read by the orchestra. In front of an audience of hundreds, Mehta took Kernis to task for his tempo markings and scoring. At one point, fed up with the criticism, Kernis apparently replied, “Just read what’s there.” The audience cheered on behalf of the composer; as the tiff was more widely reported in the press, it served as a kind of parable for the newfound power and opportunity that composers might have in the American symphonic world. An internal Philharmonic memo in the wake of the ’83 festival reports that Druckman said in a meeting that “composers now see that they can write for full orchestra and expect to be performed.”

The young composers Scott Lindroth and David Lang were also hired as assistants to Druckman for preparing the ’84 and ’86 Horizons festivals, which shaped their outlooks as recent graduates from the academy. (It is not a coincidence that these composers all attended Yale, and that Druckman taught there; I’ll be addressing this connection in more detail in my book.) In a 2014 interview with me, Lindroth said of the Horizons festivals that “when composers began to realize that this too might be available to them—and that it wasn’t all about the Pierrot ensemble plus percussion—we were all very, very excited about that: there might be another way to move forward as a composer.” Horizons represented the emergence of a new kind of “middle ground”—and audience—for young composers primarily familiar with either an “uptown” world of chamber ensembles and electronic music within academia, or a “downtown” world of improvisation and DIY ensembles within alternative venues.

And although Lang was himself writing orchestral music in the mid-’80s, his takeaway from working with the Philharmonic was that this particular corner of the marketplace was not for him. He saw the orchestral world as insular and claustrophobic; as he said in a 1997 interview with Libby van Cleve as part of Yale University’s Oral History of American Music project:

It also was very demoralizing and a very good indication of how narrow the world was, and how for any composer who was saying to himself or herself, “Oh, the secret of my future will be to write one orchestra piece. Every orchestra will play it. I’ll be world famous,” it just showed how impossible, or how narrow, or how unsatisfying that experience would be.

The first Bang on a Can marathon, in 1987, was brainstormed as a direct response to Lang’s dissatisfaction with Horizons. The composer and his compatriots Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe had spent their days in the mid-’80s hanging out at dairy restaurants on the Lower East Side, drinking coffee and complaining about institutional negligence towards contemporary work, before deciding to do something about it. But even if it seemed to offer a model for everything that the scrappy Bang on a Can would attempt to avoid, Horizons did provide new institutional connections that facilitated the upstart organization’s funding: Lang cultivated a relationship with John Duffy during his work for the Philharmonic, and MTC subsequently became the earliest major financial supporter of Bang on a Can.

Lang & Druckman

The Limits of Horizons

In the 1980s, MTC’s advisory board included a significant number of female and black composers, and more diversity than many institutions today.

From my vantage point today, one of the strengths of MTC under Duffy was its broad purview in terms of who was considered a composer and the resources that they thus commanded. In the 1980s, the organization’s advisory board included a significant number of female and black composers, and more diversity than many institutions today. Duffy’s strong advocacy for underrepresented voices was confirmed in my recent interview with Tania León, who served on the MTC board and worked with the Philharmonic as a new music advisor in the early ‘90s. (I haven’t gotten a chance to transcribe this interview yet, so again, stay tuned for the book.) In a 1993 questionnaire assessing MTC’s jazz commissioning program that I found during recent archival research at New Music USA, the composer and violinist Leroy Jenkins wrote of his MTC grant that “the very audacity of the idea of writing for a classical organization…has given inspiration to me and my contemporaries.” I was also struck, at a memorial service honoring Duffy in 2016 at Roulette, that Muhal Richard Abrams, a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, performed in his honor.

But because MTC partnered with existing institutions and established composers with their own blind spots, this push for diversity did not extend into the 1983 Horizons festival. I raise this issue because, in a recent blog post about the 2017 New Music Gathering at which I presented on my research on Horizons, the composer Inti Figgis-Vizueta pointed out the absence of diversity among conference attendees and, importantly, that very few panels addressed the systemic biases that plague the world of new music today. They suggested that “there needs to be an overhaul of our ethics to require more diverse voices in new music and that starts with each participant in our gathering truly self-criticizing and understanding their own intersections of privilege and power.” As a musicologist, I believe that such an overhaul can also benefit from telling and retelling historical moments in which underrepresented voices were silenced, and in which powerful institutions were subsequently reprimanded for the same reasons they are critiqued today.

The seven orchestras that participated in the first round of MTC residencies were free to choose their own composers: all of the composers they selected were men except for Libby Larsen, who partnered with Stephen Paulus to work with the Minnesota Orchestra, and all were white except for Robert Xavier Rodriguez, who collaborated with the Dallas Symphony. Druckman was known as a non-doctrinaire figure, and the programming of the ’83 Horizons festival was impressively catholic, bringing together distinct musical styles and a wide array of composers from Del Tredici and Adams to Wuorinen and Schuller. But even as it may have included a praiseworthy “diverse” assembly of musical idioms, diversity in terms of race and gender was almost nonexistent. Only one work by a female composer, Barbara Kolb, was presented in 1983; no works by black composers were performed. This issue was raised by the singer and author Raoul Abdul, who accused the orchestra of discrimination both at the festival and in the press; in a column in the New York Amsterdam News, he wrote that “when I asked the question ‘Where are the Black Composers?’ at the opening symposium at the Library of Performing Arts last Wednesday evening, it was greeted with hisses and boos from some of the 300 people present. Philharmonic Composer-in-Residence Jacob Druckman, who put together the festival, refused to address the question directly by saying he couldn’t include everyone. He lumped Blacks in with women and other minorities.”

Understanding the fact that Horizons did not present any works by black composers in 1983 can help us understand the mechanisms that shape how and why underrepresented voices continue to be excluded in the world of new music in the present. Given the dozens of scores that were mailed to the Philharmonic by hopeful composers—the New York Public Library’s Jacob Druckman papers include many, many letters from composers submitting their work for his examination—the composer-in-residence and the orchestra certainly had access to music by African Americans, but they did not program it. And it was an issue that the organizers were aware of beforehand: when actually planning the ’83 Horizons festival, as a document in the Philharmonic archives reveals, Druckman said in a meeting that “two areas have been of concern to Meet The Composer: getting more high-power soloists; and programming a work by one of the minimalists (Reich or Glass) and by a woman or black composer.” There is much to praise in Druckman’s visionary promise of a new Romanticism and the Philharmonic’s wholehearted embrace of contemporary music with Horizons, one that might even eclipse Alan Gilbert’s worthwhile recent efforts. But declining to properly represent the diversity of the American musical landscape was one of its failures.

press conference for Horizons

León mentioned in her interview with me that in the wake of the Abdul protest, Duffy marched over to the Philharmonic’s offices with a stack of scores by black composers to deliver to the orchestra. The second festival, titled “The New Romanticism—A Broader View,” addressed this injustice by including performances of music by George Lewis, George Walker, and Anthony Davis, as well as Diamanda Galás, Thea Musgrave, Laurie Spiegel, Joan La Barbara, and Betsy Jolas. But observers still pointed out the underrepresentation of women and black composers in the public forums that Horizons mounted. As reported by Johnny Reinhard in EAR Magazine, at an opening symposium for the festival in June 1984, an audience member asked of a panel of composers—which included Hans Werner Henze, Milton Babbitt, Roger Reynolds, Greg Sandow, and Druckman—“Why aren’t there any women represented here?”

“The response was an incredibly pregnant silence,” Reinhard wrote. The discussion continued to unfold awkwardly, as someone else asked, “What about Ornette Coleman?” As Reinhard described:

Mr. Sandow fielded the question by pointing out how interesting it is that Jazz musicians prefer to be kept separate from what was being represented on the Horizons series when New York Times music critic John Rockwell cried out, “That’s not true, Gregory!” It appears that Mr. Coleman had told him otherwise. “Maybe it’s because he’s black,” suggested Brooke Wentz timidly.

In 1983, a festival that embraced a new diversity of compositional idioms under the umbrella “The New Romanticism” neglected to include women and black composers. And in a subsequent festival that attempted to rectify this imbalance, a panel consisting of white male stakeholders could not fully account for the biases that those in the audience easily perceived. Meet The Composer and Horizons helped introduce composers to the marketplace, but this marketplace belonged to the institutional world of classical music, entrenched with long histories of racism and sexism that we must continue to fight against in the present day.


William Robin

William Robin

William Robin (@seatedovation) is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland. He completed his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dissertation focused on indie classical and new music in the twenty-first century United States. His research interests include American new music since the 1980s and early American hymnody. As a public musicologist, Robin contributes to the New York Times and The New Yorker, and received an ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award in 2014 for the NewMusicBox article “Shape Notes, Billings, and American Modernisms.”

How to Produce Opera Outside the Opera House

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

Here’s a new music riddle of sorts:

How do you get an opera company to produce an opera that’s not really an opera?

The answer: You don’t—you produce it yourself.

In a 1989 grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts, Steve Reich explained his rationale for self-producing The Cave, his and video artist Beryl Korot’s first video opera:

We are self-producing The Cave because the unusual nature of the piece demands it. Specifically, The Cave will be a new type of documentary music theater that could not easily be produced in existing opera houses…an opera orchestra would be totally overblown, unprepared, and unsuitable to perform it.

Operatic voices would be equally unsuitable, he wrote, and “the technical demands of [the piece] would be poorly served at best if produced in existing opera houses or concert halls.” Unlike his erstwhile colleague Philip Glass, who by then had seen his operas produced by established opera houses in Amsterdam, Stuttgart, and Houston, Reich seemed to view traditional institutions as museums for relics of the operatic past, unfit for truly modern music theater. But Reich took a less extreme path than the one proposed in 1966 by Boulez; rather than blowing up the opera houses, Reich decided to avoid them entirely.

Previously, Sasha Metcalf outlined how the creation of OPERA America’s “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” initiative kick-started a flurry of operatic activity that has continued to the present. Supplemented with Rockefeller funds, many U.S. opera companies began offering commissions for new operas. But institutions have their own financial priorities and aesthetic preferences, so Reich—like many iconoclastic, entrepreneurial composers of the late 20th century—chose instead to create music outside the traditional structures of production and patronage.

To create their unorthodox opera, Reich and Korot wove together multiple threads of public and private aid. Support came in many guises: financial, artistic, logistical, emotional, to name just a few. What each of these has in common is that they arose from the personal and professional relationships that the pair had cultivated over the previous decades of their careers.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture. As last year’s NewMusicBox series on community demonstrated, the act of making music—or of creating the conditions that allow for that music—is frequently communal, dependent on a network of willing participants. Networking made possible Reich and Korot’s production strategy, which relied heavily on hiring a well-connected administrator who could help them assemble a consortium of co-commissioners and solicit financial support from public foundations and private donors. (And if the term “networking” too strongly evokes images of over-eager, suit-and-tie MBAs handing out business cards, perhaps it’s more pleasant to think in collaborative terms.)

The core aesthetic concept of The Cave—combining Korot’s multiple-image video art with Reich’s work with speech melodies—came about in conversation. In June 1980, Reich lay in a hospital, recovering from shoulder surgery. When Michael Nyman stopped by for a social visit, Reich hit upon an idea for what he and Korot, who are married, would later categorize as a “documentary music video theater work”—not an opera, per se. Writing just a few months later to Betty Freeman, a longtime Los Angeles patron who would go on to commission Different Trains, Reich confided:

I…have in mind to start a H*U*G*E project that will involve live music on stage plus multiple image film….It will go back to the kind of work I was doing with tape in the 60s (like Come Out) and will be my answer to what music theatre can be.

Reich’s answer, The Cave, premiered thirteen years later at the Vienna Festival.

The title of The Cave refers to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Abraham (father to both Jews and Muslims) and his family are buried. The opera conveys the story of Abraham, his wife Sarah, her handmaid Hagar, and their sons, Ishmael and Isaac, using sacred Jewish and Islamic texts, even as it explores the contemporary relevance of these figures through interviews with Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and Americans. Reich and Korot synchronized the speech melodies and film footage from these interviews with live music to create a visual and aural portrait of each individual. The result is a far cry from Carmen or La bohème. Think Different Trains, but with video.

When Korot and Reich began thinking seriously about the project in the late 1980s, they decided that the scope of producing an opera exceeded what they could manage on their own. In April 1988, before they had even lined up a commission, the pair asked Renée Levine Packer to produce the opera. Although the Reich Music Foundation is listed on the program below as a co-producer, Reich has been quick to credit Levine Packer as the true (and sole) producer. “I didn’t have anything to do with the production whatsoever,” he said in a 2016 interview. “It was all produced by Renée Levine [Packer]. I did nothing except whatever she told me!”

Cave Program Page

Title page of the Vienna program booklet. Source: University at Buffalo Music Library.

Levine Packer and Reich first met in 1965 at the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY Buffalo, which Levine Packer coordinated and eventually co-directed. Later, she co-ran the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival and, more importantly, led the NEA’s nascent Inter-Arts Division. There, Levine Packer oversaw the agency’s funding for experimental, mixed media, and interdisciplinary collaborations. Her stints at SUNY Buffalo and the NEA were twin qualifications, according to Reich: “She was somebody who really knew the new music field and she knew the funding field, and she was really sympathetic to what we were doing. So, it was a natural [fit].”

Levine Packer brought to The Cave a wealth of connections to individuals and foundations. But her support cannot simply be measured in terms of how many grants she secured. Her support was also aesthetic in nature. Levine Packer has spoken enthusiastically about Reich’s music, and one of her most cherished possessions is Etty’s Rosetta, a painting by Korot. Moreover, she is drawn to the very nature of interdisciplinary collaborations. In my conversations with her, she reflected, “I knew how difficult [these collaborations] were, but I also knew how they transcended boundaries and were larger than the sum of their parts. And that was very exciting to me…I felt perfectly at home with that kind of aspiration. In fact, I loved it.” The Cave represented, in her view, “everything I tried to accomplish at the National Endowment for the Arts…a wonderful collaborative work that goes beyond the art form of either and comes out totally new.”

In lieu of relying on a single company to produce the opera, Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot created a network of co-commissioners. They began in the fall of 1988 with Klaus-Peter Kehr at Stuttgart Opera (this commission later transferred to the Vienna Festival), then quickly added Harvey Lichtenstein at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with whom Reich had worked before. Over the next four years, they assembled seven co-commissioners from Europe and the United States (listed at the top of the program above). These festivals and presenting institutions provided financial support via their commissions, but perhaps more importantly, their commitment to programming The Cave lent support to Levine Packer’s search for funding from public and private sources.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms.

These sources (listed at the bottom of the program above) ranged from major foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller to music-specific organizations including Meet The Composer and private patrons like Freeman. Together, they eventually furnished around three-quarters of the $1 million or so that it cost to produce The Cave. Support was not always monetary; Levine Packer was able to acquire computer hardware from IBM for Korot and Reich thanks to connections that her husband had made during his career as an economist. Although it is easy to highlight the successes that Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot achieved in securing financial support, it risks overstating the difficulty of their endeavor and the challenges of self-production. The Cave was built on five years of sustained fundraising and networking, and Reich and Korot’s devotion to creating The Cave necessarily limited their ability to earn income from other commissions or performances. Given the irregularity of grant funds, at one point they had to borrow money from their extended family. And for every “yes” the team received from a commissioner, organization, or patron, many more said “no,” including the Kennedy Center, UCLA, University of Texas at Austin (which had at one point been a co-commissioner), the Pew and Mellon Charitable Trust Foundations, and the philanthropic wings of multinational oil companies.

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians that brought The Cave to life.

There are many other ways in which the development of The Cave could show how support is built on personal and professional networks, but I will offer just one more example, which reveals support of an artistic kind. In selecting their collaborators, Korot and Reich tapped their networks of immediate, once-removed, and twice-removed contacts in the music and theater worlds. Their search for a director, for instance, lasted more than three years, with almost a dozen potential candidates. The director they eventually selected, Carey Perloff, had worked with David Lang and brought with her what she described as a “real aesthetic kinship.” Tod Machover connected Reich with one of his students, Ben Rubin, who created the opera’s typing instrument and served as technical advisor. Indeed, in his interview with me, Reich recalled:

Each case was pretty much a question of trying to find somebody who knew somebody…Richard Nelson had done the lighting for Sunday in the Park [with George], and I’m an old friend and huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, and particularly Sunday in the Park. And, I figured, anybody who can do Sunday in the Park is welcome in our production. We wanted people who would get the basic idea, which was that the basic theater was the video.

Networking remains just as crucial to independent opera production today as it did in the early 1990s. The most recent performances of The Cave this past March, for instance, took place only through the combined efforts of St. Louis arts organizations and faith communities, as well as the longstanding relationship between Alarm Will Sound and Reich.

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave at the John Burroughs School in March of 2017. In addition to the performances, AWS joined with Arts & Faith St. Louis to engage the community in conversations regarding the shared histories of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms. Rubin and Nelson gave technical and artistic support, Levine Packer provided administrative and aesthetic support, Korot’s and Reich’s families offered emotional and financial support, and even Nyman and Freeman arguably presented a kind of social support. What these and other manifestations of support for new music have in common, though, is that they develop as a result of connections between and among individuals. For most readers of NewMusicBox this probably borders on being a truism, and in recognition of that I’ll counterpoint my opening new music riddle with a new music adage: it takes a network to produce an opera.


Ryan Ebright

Ryan Ebright is an instructor in musicology at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on music for the voice, stage, and screen, with an emphasis on 20th- & 21st-century opera, minimalism, and 19th-century Lieder. His current book project, Making American Opera for the Modern Age, centers on opera in the U.S. after Einstein on the Beach. More of his work on the production history and politics of The Cave can be found in the most recent issue of American Music and in Rethinking Reich (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

How OPERA America Has Supported New Works

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

In a 2015 interview, Marc Scorca, president and CEO of the non-profit service organization OPERA America, conveyed his optimism for the future of American opera:

Today, we see new operas being performed in our major companies and at new works laboratories, which ten years ago didn’t exist nearly in the numbers that they exist today. There are composers, librettists, directors, and designers who really want to do new American opera for a whole variety of reasons…We now have an American opera repertoire.

OPERA America was established in 1970 by professional opera companies for opera companies. While their professional company membership today continues to predominantly feature traditional opera companies in North America, they now offer artistic services to a wider range of nontraditional entities that operate within and beyond the field of opera. As a national organization, it makes sense that OPERA America’s current mission statement prioritizes the creation and excellence of North American works especially. But OPERA America was not always devoted to new works. In fact, this priority only developed after the organization’s first decade in response to critical changes in the field. OPERA America members became concerned with the dearth of new American operas and the stagnation of standard European repertoire. In response to this perceived crisis, they designated a landmark suite of grants to cultivate new music theater collaborations.

American opera’s previous heyday occurred in the 1960s when the Ford Foundation commissioned 22 works, two of which were produced by the Metropolitan Opera, one each by San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and 11 by the New York City Opera. Familiar titles include Robert Ward’s The Crucible (1961), Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra (1966), and Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1967). These new operas had mixed reception among audiences and singers, who often preferred 18th- and 19th-century standard repertoire. Opera houses also found that the new works required more costly preparations, such as extra rehearsal time for roles that singers usually never had an opportunity to perform again. Although the Ford Foundation successfully extended the American opera repertoire, their commissioning program was not sustainable and it ceased when the money ran out. Thus, during OPERA America’s formative years in the early 1970s, U.S. opera companies encountered a relative downturn in financial support for new works.

Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra

By the late 1970s, a cohort of progressive opera and theater administrators reached beyond the boundaries of opera by galvanizing grants for collaborations. The National Endowment for the Arts debuted the Opera-Musical Theater program in 1979, which enabled interaction between opera and theater companies that previously had been assigned to the separate divisions of music and theater, respectively. The NEA Opera-Musical Theater program’s advisory board listed diverse figures, including opera company general directors David Gockley and Kurt Herbert Adler, opera composers Thea Musgrave and Carlisle Floyd, musical theater composers Stephen Sondheim and John Kander, and theater producers Hal Prince and Stuart Ostrow. Although the Opera-Musical Theater program successfully funded premieres and fostered new works in their early stages, this program alone did not enact the transformation OPERA America professionals were pursuing. In the early 1980s, productions of new American operas by U.S. companies remained limited: 1981 saw four world premieres in the United States, 1982 had seven, 1983 had five, and 1984 had only three. At this juncture, the forward-looking members of OPERA America hoped to stimulate the creation of any new works, even if their ultimate desire was for the works to become canonical with repeat performances.

It was necessary to effect a change within the opera field and not let opera companies be ‘end run’ by the creation of new music theater within other fields.

A network of arts professionals, including Rockefeller Foundation Arts Director Howard Klein and impresarios Harvey Lichtenstein and David Gockley, believed the solution was to look beyond opera establishments to the vital world of experimental music theater, most successfully represented by the collaborative efforts of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson in Einstein on the Beach (1976). Many of these music theater artists were active in the Downtown New York scene—Glass, Wilson, Robert Ashley, Laurie Anderson, and Lee Breuer—but others, including Paul Dresher and George Coates, worked in San Francisco. They had little or no contact with U.S. opera companies at the time. OPERA America President David DiChiera contended that “it was necessary to effect a change within the opera field and not let opera companies be ‘end run’ by the creation of new music theater within other fields, for that would serve to accentuate even more the atrophy current within our industry.”

OPERA America initiated new undertakings to address these issues with the help of Klein and Ann Farris Darling, director of the NEA Opera-Musical Theater Program. In August of 1983, Klein, Darling, and OPERA America Executive Director Martin Kagan and President David DiChiera held a three-day meeting in Detroit with 32 participants: composers, conductors, playwrights, stage directors, and opera house general directors with experience in new opera and related music theater works. The invitees were strategic: the meeting planners specifically wanted to bring together artists from the worlds of opera and musical theater. All attendees considered the particular limitations or opportunities that influenced opera companies in the creation of new American works. They brainstormed methods to minimize the artistic and monetary risks that determined whether or not a company would commission new operas.

Klein believed that opera companies ought to observe the theater world for inspiration: “Unlike theater, which nourished playwrights through workshops and productions, opera had no farm team for creators.” This issue, along with the time and money needed for commissions and productions, drove Klein and others to set up a support system for creating new works titled “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” (hereafter OFTEAB). The program offered three types of grants: Exploration Fellowships (allowing personnel to see new works and meet artists), Team Building Grants (funding artist/administrator meetings for potential works), and Development Grants (subsidizing creative costs for commissions and productions).

Money was only part of the problem.

Yet even as OPERA America personnel launched OFTEAB, they were not convinced all opera companies would take advantage of its grants. Consequently, OFTEAB’s first project director had the key duty of visiting and interviewing opera company administrators across North America to diagnose the reasons why they did not program new works. Their hire, Ben Krywosz, was a stage director who had experience with innovative music theater creation through the National Institute for Music Theater at Minnesota Opera. After meeting with dozens of opera companies, he noted in his final report that “money was only part of the problem. In fact, the implicit (and sometimes explicit) mission of most opera companies was to produce masterpieces of 18th- and 19th-century European opera. Creating new work was a completely different activity that was not particularly compatible with the production process of most opera companies.” In order for OFTEAB to work, Krywosz felt these companies needed to broaden their horizons and mission statements to include the creation of new operas. Some companies resisted OFTEAB, as they were not keen to change their approach. “Playing a pro-active role in challenging the field’s assumptions about the operatic form,” Krywosz explained, “was seen by some in the field as a subversive activity, inconsistent with OPERA America’s broader goals of supporting opera.” The Detroit meeting participants had predicted this issue, which is why OFTEAB’s funding, namely the exploration fellowships and pre-commissioning grants, functioned as educational outreach for general directors who were unfamiliar with emerging artists and new processes of creating music theater.

For more details about the particular works that resulted from OFTEAB and the risk-taking arts administrators involved, see “Funding Opera for the 80s and Beyond: The Role of Impresarios in Creating a New American Repertoire” in the Spring 2017 issue of American Music.

The influence of “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” on the American opera landscape became clear by its completion in 1990. Nontraditional opera companies, among them the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia and the Music-Theatre Group in New York City, now appeared as OPERA America member organizations, which continued to grow in number throughout the 1990s. The annual number of American opera premieres had also increased throughout the decade (e.g., 1998 had 31). In fact, this rate has remained constant to the present day: an average of 30 works premiered each year between 1995 and 2015.

The above average of 30 new works per year resulted from a 2015 OPERA America study that tracked the numbers, names, and composer demographics of North American world premieres over the past 20 years. This document offers a useful window into the organization’s more recent institutional priorities. For instance, the report found that only 71 (11%) of the 589 works premiered during this period have had more than one production. OPERA America’s programs have triumphed with the rise of annual premieres, yet most of these works have not entered the operatic canon with revivals. The exceptions belong to composers Mark Adamo and Jake Heggie, who according to the report enjoyed the highest number of revivals: Adamo’s Little Women (1998) had 66 and Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000) had 42. Philip Glass followed with 25 revivals (of multiple operas) and the highest number of world premieres (12 operas). Another area of concern for OPERA America is the lack of gender diversity. Only 41 out of 373 total composers were female. Today OPERA America has addressed this gap by facilitating a Women’s Opera Network and new grants for female composers.

Despite these achievements, Krywosz looks back at the 1980s as “heady times” compared to today, in which new works are more common. He assessed the situation over email in 2014: “Most of the work is fairly staid, new wine in old bottles, and we are headed dangerously toward a rather boring convention of naturalistic prose librettos, set in an arioso/recit style that doesn’t even begin to take advantage of the power of music-theater.” Today Krywosz continues to advocate for boundary-crossing works over in Minnesota as artistic director of Nautilus Music-Theater, where he works as a producer, director, and dramaturg of new operas and other forms of music theater. Some may perceive OPERA America’s mission of reaching “within and beyond the opera field” as empty talk, but Krywosz points out “there is a contingent within the organization (Beth Morrison, Paul Dresher, HERE, etc.) that [is] more adventuresome and can’t be discounted.”

At the same time, as John Pippen argues in a previous article in this series, “New music is a culture that tends to romanticize risk, and I think we ought to push back on that romanticizing. For all its aesthetic innovation, new music remains a job for many people.” Perhaps the same could be said of new American opera. Debates over its future highlight a complex web of expectations concerning not only the importance of radical artistic vision but also the commercial realities and conventional operatic norms of larger institutions that cannot afford to fail in the same way that smaller organizations might.

Returning to Scorca’s point at the beginning, if “we now have an American opera repertoire,” what kind of repertoire is it? In addition to Beth Morrison Projects, American Opera Projects and the American Lyric Theater aim to shape this repertoire from the ground up. A range of small organizations, Opera Parallèle and The Industry among them, also champion contemporary opera and music theater, and their influence has radiated outward: Opera Parallèle’s artistic director Nicole Paiement is now a principal guest conductor at The Dallas Opera. Such larger institutions continue to sprinkle new works into their programming, often working with arts incubators and shouldering costs through coproductions. But the “American New Opera Machine” still has its downsides: Frank Pesci, for instance, recently described the challenges emerging artists face when trying to break onto the American opera scene. As the field continues to work for change, the legacy of OFTEAB remains at OPERA America with its New Works Forums, Exploration Grants, and Audience and Repertoire Development funds.


Sasha Metcalf

Sasha Metcalf

Sasha Metcalf will begin a new position this fall as a program analyst at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program. Her research, featured in NewMusicBox and American Music, examines the interplay between administrators, artists, and performing arts institutions during the late 20th century. Previously, Metcalf was a visiting assistant professor of musicology at Vanderbilt University and a lecturer in the writing program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

What Do You Think?

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologist at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

A couple of years ago I attended a concert that included a piece by the composer Fred LaMar (a pseudonym). After several months of fieldwork in the Chicago New Music scene, I had recently become fixated on asking a simple question: what do you think? I would ask this of fellow concert-goers and whenever an acquaintance knew the piece I was interested in, so I was eager to hear people’s reactions to LaMar’s work. After this show, a respected performer responded to my question by asking, “You’re not a friend of Fred LaMar, are you?” I was not, and we engaged in a detailed discussion of what she saw as the piece’s failings, as well as other aspects of the performance she didn’t like.

How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation?

Such conversations have remained a subject of curiosity for me. In my research, I routinely conduct taped interviews, but these can’t capture or exemplify all the interesting conversations I have had while doing my fieldwork. Many times, detailed conversations about aesthetics and labor came about naturally while walking around town or during a chance meeting. I couldn’t always prepare for such an encounter, and when I have attempted to solicit negative reviews during more formal interviews, the results are frequently stale or intensely private. How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation? How do our relationships mediate our critical perspectives? What happens when someone you respect does work you don’t like? I want to consider these questions with regard to both printed and spoken reviews of concerts. By looking at how we speak about these issues, we can begin to see how musicians move back and forth between ostensibly social and aesthetic concerns, and demonstrate how these two areas are deeply interwoven domains.

As I’ve attempted to formulate what it is that interests me about these conversations, I’ve turned to anthropological research on gossip. It’s not that every response to “What do you think?” constitutes gossip, but sometimes it does, and it can be hard to tell the difference. (I know, I know, the adage about only saying it if you would say it in front of someone, but the fact is some people are more open to criticism than others. I didn’t always have a strong relationship with the criticized or the criticizer, and presumption is riskier than abstention.) Since the 1950s, researchers such as Erving Goffman have argued that intimate conversations often have as much of a theatrical “staged” quality as public discussions. We shape our conversation to its context. Even our most intimate iterations are mediated by concerns about place and impact, though they remain authentic. We can lower these stakes in part by feigning ignorance of a subject, as noted by ethnomusicologist Henry Kingsbury. In his book based on ethnographic research in an elite music conservatory, Kingsbury described the question “What did you think of the Beethoven?” as a way to judge not only the talent of Beethoven and his performers, but of the speakers. More recently, Niko Besnier has argued that gossip is crucial to understanding the make-up of a given community, arguing that “exclusion from gossip is one of the primary means through which groups define outsider status.” Gossip, he argues in his book Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics, is central to “how people construct and maintain a sense of localness.” Viewed with a sense of community in mind, “What do you think?” can serve to announce our relationships with the musicians in question. It can locate us in relationship to the broader community, as having more or less insight or talent (a la Kingsbury), or as being a trusted confidant (as in Besnier). Responding to “What did you think of the Reich?” with “I just don’t like music with so little melody” could risk placing you outside the community, in opposition to widely accepted views. In contrast, a more nuanced response, “I think Reich’s music stopped being good about seventeen years ago” might have the opposite effect. Your response also varies according to your place. Maybe you really don’t like music with the kinds of melodies Reich employs, but you don’t want to say so in front of the wrong people. Giving your opinion of melody is thus an intimation, a sign that you trust your interlocutor to keep your confidence.

Photo by Andrew Robles

Photo by Andrew Robles

In my fieldwork and interviews, “What do you think?” provided many people with an opportunity for expressing support. When I asked people what they thought, opinions were often given with various caveats or protective phrases such as, “First of all, I generally think Rebecca is a fantastic soloist and a great musician. But …” Many of the people I spoke with in the Chicago scene and elsewhere were eager to demonstrate their respect for the work required to produce a given performance. At each point in the conversation, interlocutors attempted to ascertain the rationale for the work in question. Why did this performance happen here in this way by these performers? Often, more intensely negative opinions appeared with more caveats, especially when disparaging respected figures. Indeed, this type of construction—a critique delivered after an expression of support—has, for me, become almost cliché. I encounter it frequently in press reviews of the groups I study. Eighth Blackbird is routinely praised for excellent performances while the same writer will deride the piece performed (check out Anne Midgette’s 2016 review of Eighth Blackbird’s “Ghostlight” program for a good example).

Sometimes, such constructions emerged after especially damning criticisms. In a recent concert review for Cacophony magazine, for example, Jen Hill took the vocal ensemble Quince and composer Luis Fernando Amaya to task, writing:

The concert began with a conservative program […] that relied on simplistic subtlety in terms of purpose and approach, in that any possibility of risk or consequence was masked by a metaphorical (and at one point, very real) veil of restraint. [This performance] objectifies the female bodies on stage and makes a theatrical mess of an otherwise pleasant listening experience.

That word “pleasant” recalls other back-handed compliments I’ve read over the years. Take, for example, this scorcher from a 2011 Eighth Blackbird concert review:

No need to return to Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire, a listenable but inconsequential concerto written for eighth blackbird. They gathered around the Steinway at the beginning of the piece and the end, bowing and striking the piano strings to pleasant effect.

In the comments posted to the Cacophony review, Hill responded to critics, “i have great respect for all performers and composers and staff involved in this festival and have no intention of passing judgement on their skill, commitment, or character.” And yet judgment was passed on the work, a move that at least raises some questions about character, especially when criticism includes accusations of misogyny.

Why support those we criticize? Or the reverse, why criticize those we support?

Why support those we criticize? Or the reverse, why criticize those we support? Why do many of us feel the need to suss out works and our opinions? I posed this question to a friend, who responded, “Because it’ll make the work better. All this stuff involves innovating, trying to do something different.” In new music, it can be hard to know when somebody’s on to something or when we’re just excited for someone. Sometimes the distinction doesn’t matter, but often it does. There’s a point, I think, where your honest opinion matters more than your friend’s feelings. The opposite is also true, as was demonstrated to me repeatedly in fieldwork. “What do you think?” was rarely a simple question in the new music scenes I’ve studied. Especially when forming new relationships, as I did over and over again in the course of my fieldwork, sharing critical perspectives helped me engender a sense of trust and openness. Finding people who shared my critical views enhanced our relationship, and I needed those relationships for my work. When I could be honest with someone, I was able to have richer conversations, to open up, and—most importantly—to relax and stop analyzing everything I was doing while I was doing it. It helped make the long hours feel less like an intrusion and more like a shared experience.

Photo by Nik MacMillan

Photo by Nik MacMillan

Critiques and gossip both illustrate that, at least for the people I have worked with, new music is a rather contingent endeavor. An artist’s status, veracity, and execution were often points of debate. Even a group as successful as Eighth Blackbird ultimately risks a lot when they undertake a project. Groups with a larger budget and full-time employees cannot afford to fail in the same way that the part-time Ensemble Dal Niente can. This is important to remember amidst all the hyperbole around entrepreneurship. New music is a culture that tends to romanticize risk, and I think we ought to push back on that romanticizing. For all its aesthetic innovation, new music remains a job for many people. For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question. A consensus of failure had the potential to be a truly devastating realization, especially when a project cost a lot of money and involved multiple donors.

For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question.

Attending to this type of talk complicates how we support each other. It demonstrates that negative feedback relies on a sense of trust and implicit support, as has been noted by Ellen McSweeney in an essay titled “Can a Concert Review be an Act of Love?”:

I’ve realized that for me, writing about other people’s artistic work is actually an act of service. More than that: it is an act of love…. when I look back at my best concert reviews, I can see their devotional qualities. I never wrote about music that I didn’t like, or didn’t care about. Thus, my music writing is an expression of the fact that I really see this artist, that I believe in this artist, and that I want to shine a light on what this artist offers the world.  And when I called out Chicago new music sexism, or Beethoven Festival dysfunction, or an unexamined trope in Amy Beth Kirsten’s work, it was much like the process of telling a close friend that they’re wrong.

I don’t think I love everybody I talk about, but I do care about most of them. When I don’t care about something, I tend to talk about it very little (though when I really hate something, I might talk about it more).

One last thing about “What do you think?”: The levels of mediation I have outlined here demonstrate how much the people I’ve worked with rely on each other. The scene is small, or at least it is felt to be small. “What did you think?” is thus usefully combined with that other ubiquitous question in new music, “Do you know so-and-so?” To return to my opening example, I wonder what would have happened if I had been a friend of Fred LaMar. How would my conversation have been different? I think three counter questions would shape my reaction to another’s criticism of my imaginary friend’s piece. First, what did I think? This question often takes me a long time to figure out, and can change after I have a good talk with another listener. Second, who am I speaking with? The answer to this question determines how honest I can afford to be. Finally, did my interlocutor acknowledge in some way the work required to produce the work?

Determining the qualities of a piece of music of almost any kind remains deeply social for me and for many others. Most of us, I think, arrive at our opinions in dialogue with our friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and critics. Sharing our experience of music goes a long way to shaping our experience of that music. Even when we think something is bad, talking about it can still feel really good.

In Support of New Music

How is new music supported?

At the third annual New Music Gathering this past May, a panel of musicologists suggested a variety of answers to this question. In ideal scenarios, new music is sustained at multiple levels: financial, social, aesthetic, and emotional. Over the next few months, we’ll share case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American operas, as well as the interpersonal relationships and ethics that nourish new music communities from Chicago to Stockholm. We’ll also look at where support falls short, and explore what lessons these failures offer.

Thank you to NewMusicBox for hosting this series, to New Music Gathering for creating a space for productive dialogue, and to our families, friends, and institutions for supporting our scholarship.

INDEX:

What Do You Think? By John Pippen
How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation? For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question.

How OPERA America Has Supported New Works By Sasha Metcalf
In the 1980s, OPERA America members became concerned with the dearth of new American operas and the stagnation of standard European repertoire. In response to this perceived crisis, they decided to take action. But the need for financial support was only part of the problem.

How to Produce Opera Outside the Opera House By Ryan Ebright
How do you get an opera company to produce an opera that’s not really an opera? You don’t—you do it yourself. But it takes a network of support. Ryan Ebright explores the personal connections and professional collaborators that allowed Steve Reich and Beryl Korot to self-produce their first video opera The Cave.

Amateur Hour: Karin Rehnqvist, The City’s Choir, and the Gift that Kept Giving By Per Broman
Karin Rehnqvist was never afraid of being labeled a composer for amateurs (nor was she afraid of being labeled a feminist), and after numerous commissions from professional ensembles and international performances, she didn’t have to prove herself. The amateur path she started on actually showed itself to be an ideal schooling in outreach and entrepreneurship.

New Horizons, Old Barriers By Will Robin
Funded by the organization Meet The Composer, the New York Philharmonic’s Horizons festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace. But declining to properly represent the diversity of the American musical landscape was one of its failures.