Performance » Theater

Adapting Opera



With the recent closure of the New York City Opera, and some noticeable changes closer to home in the Indianapolis Opera, lovers of the style cannot help but join in solidarity with ticket holders nationwide and wonder--what's the future of opera?

Elliot Brown, a baritone, is tying his future with the uncertain one of opera. Newly graduated with an operatic degree and hopes of a professional career, Brown drew the starting line here with the Indianapolis Opera's Young Artist Program. "It is a good job for young singers to have shortly after they finish their education," explains Brown.

The main goal of these programs is to teach and train young opera singers. Many of the programs are focusing on expanding the vocal training, and for Indianapolis Opera participants, that also means extending the art to the community. Brown recalls traveling all over the state almost every day to put on programs at schools. The idea was to draw a younger audience and let youth know it is not singers in Viking helmets performing in another language--thanks a lot, cartoons.

"The Flying Dutchman" by Indianapolis Opera - DENIS RYAN KELLY JR.
  • Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.
  • "The Flying Dutchman" by Indianapolis Opera

Brown took all the right steps for his operatic education, but he knows that when the economy spreads itself thin, people will always cut the luxury items first.

"Even if they didn't take a personal hit on their income, the recession makes them worry about it," says Brown. "You will see a decrease in attendance to private schools and fine dining. Opera and the arts fall in the same boat. For opera companies to stay afloat in this kind of a time, you really have to be creative. They have to find ways to save money, keep their standing in the community and find ways to keep people aware of them; all while spending half as much."

The community programs for kids are indeed excellent for education and, according to Brown, have great value for the singers. But much of the idea is promotion. For Carol Baker, Interim General Manager of the Indianapolis Opera, the community outreach is all a part of a new "strategic plan" to stay connected with the community.

"It is like we are sitting on this incredible gold mine," says Baker, referring to functioning in a theater-strong town. She is gambling that the market is up for newer, bold operas instead of the classics.

The Indianapolis Opera, like many smaller opera houses around the country, has its fair share of financial difficulties. It and other American opera houses must ask the age-old question, what can we do to fill the seats? For companies that might not be on a national map, this can often mean using four of the productions in a six-show season, to highlight the well-known names. Bringing to the stage something like Puccini's Madame Butterfly or Verdi's Aida, will almost assuredly sell tickets and keep the lights on.

Kevin Murphy has tasted opera on its finest platter (Murphy was the director of music administration at the New York City Opera and was appointed by Gerard Mortier as the directeur des etudes musicales at the Opéra National de Paris). Now he is staying busy mentoring the next generation as the Head Opera Coach at IU. Even as a musician he has always known the harsh necessities of ticket sales. 

"Some companies have to rely on the warhorses to get people in the seats," explains Murphy. "We used to call them the ABC's of opera--Aida, Boheme, and Carmen." All are known for being sellout shows and bookmarks of the Romantic and Verismo periods of opera, and you may be surprised to find you know them already even if you've never been to a show. Boheme actually set the stage for the modern musical, Rent, to take a bow.

"The Flying Dutchman" by Indianapolis Opera - DENIS RYAN KELLY JR.
  • Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.
  • "The Flying Dutchman" by Indianapolis Opera

"The bigger opera houses do have to consider ticket sales, but I have found that the attitude is much more of innovation," says Murphy. "In many ways opera [there] is thriving."

The larger opera houses typically rely on large donations from well-heeled donors rather than ticket sales. They have more room for creativity and risk, but even those strongholds are not completely safe.

"City Opera fell into a perfect storm," says Murphy. "Operas are expensive to produce."

In Europe the government foots the bill--a luxury virtually unknown in the States. According to OPERA America, in fiscal year 2011, government support only accounted for about 5 percent of total operating income.

According to Murphy, places like Germany have typically been able to be a bit more experimental due to public funding. While houses closer to home have to send their young professionals out on a public relations campaign trail, ones overseas are able to push the envelope and ask what exactly makes an opera...well, an opera.

"There is such a wide range of styles now," says Murphy. "We have directors producing operas now that are cinematic [movie or stage directors]. And composers who are not specifically opera composers are writing opera. I think people are trying to test the boundaries of what opera is. For me, one of the key elements that makes a great opera is that there are people who are singing about something and they have a reason to sing about it."

Therein lies the heart to opera. At what point is a story so strong that it simply can't just be spoken? Singing and music awakens a new level of emotion for the audience and making the decision of when to sing can be difficult.

"Why does this person have to sing about this? Why can't they just say it?" asks Murphy. "Merely just talking about it [at times] doesn't bring out the whole picture. There needs to be a reason to sing it. They can bring the audience and the listener into this world. For me, that is what opera is."

But what is it that differentiates opera from its close relative on the stage, musical theater? Both have strong story lines, grand performance spaces and use singing to get the point across. Some pieces, like Sweeney Todd, have repeatedly crossed over the opera/musical theater line and are regularly performed in both styles.

"Especially for American opera [and theater] there is a fine line between the two," interjects Murphy. "Singing with your whole sound and your whole body and getting the drama across without needing dialogue, that can be operatic. The style can vary."

Beth Morrison, who holds a master's degree in vocal performance, has to ask herself what is it that defines opera, every day. In 2006, she founded "Beth Morrison Projects," which was set on showing that opera in America could take on a new face and bring a new dance to an old song.

"There is a lot of differentiation, for me, between opera and musical theater," says Morrison. "It comes into who is singing it. Opera singers use more of a belconto style rooted in seamless ranges, ornate embellishments and immense breath control. Typically that would be sung through with little to no spoken text. That being said, there are a lot of composers writing today who are calling things opera that wouldn't traditionally be called opera. [Calling it an opera] is not up to the producers and critics. It is up to the composers."

All other aspects are debatable, but the voice will always remain the defining factor of opera. In our digital age singers rarely need to train their voice to function as a sound system, but for opera it is the foundation. So, a traditional companies try to evolve with the times, one of the strongest points of contention in opera today is the use of microphones.

When opera began, there were no microphones to amplify singers' voices. They had to rely on their own abilities. Technology provides alternatives, but there are still those who believe that you are only an opera singer if you don't use amplification--that to do so would be cheating, in a sense. Morrison disagrees.

"I don't really feel like you lose very much," says Morrison. "But I guess if you wanted to play this sort of sheer wonder of being able to project the human voice on its own...It is very rigorous for the body. You train the muscles for your breathing and for what is happening in the larynx. It is like any exercise, you build the muscle strength for it."

"The main difference between opera singing and contemporary singing," she continues, "is the way that the breath functions and the use of space in the throat. The more space you have in your throat, the more space you are creating for an amplifying chamber to create that larger sound. Opera singers work very hard to try and figure out how to make that kind of space in the throat and work from a projected breath."

"Amahl and the Night Visitors" by Indianapolis Opera - DENIS RYAN KELLY JR.
  • Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.
  • "Amahl and the Night Visitors" by Indianapolis Opera

Murphy completely concurs. "The technique that it takes to sing when it is not amplified, you need a full throated, fully supported voice. It is a different kind of training."

But it remains a house divided. Today, many opera companies are putting microphones on their performers, something that, according to Murphy, could change the style of singing. "When you have a mic on, you can do whatever you want vocally," says Murphy. "That is not to say that it is not a legitimate style of singing, it is just different."

Morrison leaves it up to the composer. If a composer wants the singer to have microphones, she is more than happy to comply. About 90 percent of her shows use microphones.

"Most of the composers want it miced for aesthetic reasons," explains Morrison. "I think that it adds a contemporary feeling to it. I think it puts it into a different sound world."

Microphone or not, many trained singers still could not do opera. It is a skill that takes crafting and innovation. Morrison is at the front lines of this originality. The intent of her company is to focus on the commission, development, production and touring of contemporary opera. However, she does cover musical theater and multimedia concert works as well.

The works that are chosen for production are strictly from living composers. If you want to see what the industry is going to look like in the next 50 years, stop by one of her operatic shows in New York City. It is not uncommon in any of her shows to see live painting, animation, video work, electric guitars or a myriad of other less-than-standard mediums.

"My mission make opera as viable as a play would be," says Morrison. "That meant bringing the right kinds of collaborators to the table."

  • Matthew Murphy
  • Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly was one of the first to dine. He was one of the initial composers that Morrison took on. Today, Mulhy's opera Two Boys has stolen the media's heart--reviews from The Atlantic and New York Times all boasted of its innovation.

Mulhy, 32, is the youngest commissioned composer the Metropolitan Opera has ever seen. The play uses tech-savvy set design to tell the story of a young boy caught up in a violent crime that was born from an Internet chat room. The Metropolitan Opera hopes to bring in a younger audience with the modern show. After all, in 2008 the median age of the opera attendee was 48. It is time for fresh faces and a new stage set by groundbreaking young professionals.

Mulhy and Morrison are both pushing the boundaries and redefining opera by their own terms.

"I think it is a really tough time for arts organizations in general. I think it signifies that new models are needed," says Morrison.

Morrison's company helped to give a home to composers who wanted their work to have a strong visual component, something that is taking new operas by storm and sizing up the scale for new models.

From Nico Muhly's "Two Boys" at the Metropolitan Opera. - KEN HOWARD / METROPOLITAN OPERA
  • Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
  • From Nico Muhly's "Two Boys" at the Metropolitan Opera.

"There is, in New York anyway, such a do-it-yourself mentality," says Morrison.  "The community here feeds off of itself. It was perpetuated because one composer would create a work, it would be successful. That would inspire someone to write a piece and that would be successful. We are not going to wait to be established. We are going to write operas now because we are interested in telling stories in a visual way."

"[Mulhy's composition] marks what is hopefully a lasting change at the Metropolitan Opera," Morrison continues. "If this is taking place at the most important opera company in the country ... it hopefully signifies something for the entire industry if they are willing to take this risk."

OPERA America is leading the way in a dialogue of what is next for the art, since 1970. Each year it holds a conference, allowing young and seasoned professionals alike to come together and talk about the future.

"Seven years ago the conversation was why we can't do new work," says Morrison. "The conversation two years ago was 'what's wrong with you if you are not doing new work.' There has been a major change and companies have taken risks."

Risks are not just being taken in the content and the sets. An article in the Fall 2013 issue of OPERA America's magazine, discusses how recent inventions can change the face of opera or, more accurately, the face of the viewer. The piece focuses on Google Glasses. Testers of the high-tech glasses have begun to vocalize what the technology could mean for the stage.

The possibilities are profound. With each wearer the background of the opera could change--you pick the scene each song should have. Enhanced multimedia program notes that elaborate on what you want to hear. Why can't one of the oldest art forms and the newest technology become the best pair?

From Nico Muhly's "Two Boys" at the Metropolitan Opera. - KEN HOWARD / METROPOLITAN OPERA
  • Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
  • From Nico Muhly's "Two Boys" at the Metropolitan Opera.

Today audiences are hungry for a new flavor of opera, one that young professionals like Morrison, Mulhy and Brown, are all cooking up. Modern opera is pushing boundaries of sound, stage and technology to change the perception of the art.

It looks scary with giants like the New York City Opera closing, but plenty of people still have hope. Brown, for one, isn't feeling insecure about his future.

"Opera is not a dead art form," says Brown. "It is kinetic. It is living, moving constantly and evolving. It is an art form, which is going through a more interesting time. There is more going on in opera than some more approachable art forms, musical theatre and things like that. Opera is going through a renaissance. What is it? What does it mean to perform an opera? What does it mean to compose an opera? Opera means expanding the definition of this art form."

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