When the world thinks about American opera, it thinks first about the behemoth that is the Met: the house that stages 30 operas per year and whose 3,800 seat capacity permits it to bring in the top box-office-busting names from across the opera world. But there’s more to the US than New York, and there’s more to US opera than the Met: 3,000 miles away on the Pacific coast, younger companies are taking fresh approaches to the medium. I spoke to CEO/General Directors from the four big West Coast opera companies – Christopher Koelsch in Los Angeles, Matthew Shilvock in San Francisco, Aidan Lang in Seattle and David Bennett in San Diego – to learn about their audiences and about the way forward for their companies.

From left: Christopher Koelsch, Matthew Shilvock, Aidan Lang, David Bennett
From left: Christopher Koelsch, Matthew Shilvock, Aidan Lang, David Bennett

The first thing to strike one is the proportion of new operas in their repertoire. Three of the ten productions in LA Opera’s 2017-8 season are opera from the present decade; SF Opera’s season was focused on a world première from John Adams; Seattle Opera’s 2018-9 season will feature Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (a no-brainer to have coproducers including Seattle and San Francisco, the two cities at the heart of the tech boom). In a bid to woo its large Spanish-speaking population, San Diego’s main stage features Florencia en el Amazonas, a Gabriel García Márquez-inspired opera by Mexican composer Daniel Catán. It’s instructive to compare that to the 2017-8 seasons of the Met and the Royal Opera, whose 52 main stage productions include just one new opera each.

There is obvious audience appetite behind this. Where commentators in London and New York bemoan the age profile of the opera audience and its conservatism, none of my interviewees showed any fear of staging contemporary work. In fact, quite the opposite: Shilvock talks about the “great hunger for repertoire diversity” of the San Francisco audience, while Koelsch points out that because LA Opera is such a young company, “there is no hidebound tradition within the audience about aesthetic expectations”: his mission is “to present world class artists for a receptive audience” and he is no doubt that LA audiences are receptive to a wide range of work.

<i>Madama Butterfly</i>: Renée Rapier (Suzuki), Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio San) © Philip Newton | Seattle Opera
Madama Butterfly: Renée Rapier (Suzuki), Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio San)
© Philip Newton | Seattle Opera

Lang points to the pace of change within Seattle – the fifth fastest growing large city in the US, according to reports earlier this year – where the proportion of the opera audience under 50 years old has shifted from 20% to 50% in the space of two years. Extensive research has confirmed how “socially engaged” that audience is (this is, after all, the state where Bernie Sanders won over 70% of the vote for the Democrat nomination). In response, Lang is cultivating an audience which sees opera as serious, thoughtful theatre, “more than just a fun night out”. Madama Butterfly – “a hot potato in the United States” – has been set alongside Jack Perla’s An American Dream, a three year old piece about another hot potato: the incarceration of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. As One, a two-handed chamber opera “exploring the journey of a transgender protagonist”, has been a sell-out. For Los Angeles, Koelsch asserts that “the opera house is the natural place for our community to come together for social political debate, it is the natural place where all the art forms meet, so it makes sense that it would be the centre of the community and not an affectation for the very few” – a concept the he believes is fully embraced by both audiences and donors.

<i>As One</i>: Kelly Markgraf (Hannah before), Blythe Gaissert (Hanna After) © Karli Cadel | San Diego Opera
As One: Kelly Markgraf (Hannah before), Blythe Gaissert (Hanna After)
© Karli Cadel | San Diego Opera

The exception, for the moment, is San Diego, whose audience Bennett describes as “very wise and very informed, but fairly conservative in taste”. Even here, however, the direction is of building a new, engaged audience: Bennett is proud that in its first year, his off-main-stage programming, labelled the “dētour” series, attracted people from over 600 households in which no-one has ever bought an opera ticket: some of whom have gone on to buy tickets for main stage productions, proving the series to be a pathway for bringing in new audiences (the series included As One, and will move on to Piazzolla’s tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires in January).

Much of the audience comes for more than just the performance. Arriving at the top of the staircase at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for Nabucco, I was astonished to see the generous foyer area filled up with seats for the 600 or so patrons listening to LA Opera’s Music Director James Conlon giving his pre-performance talk. In San Francisco, librettist/director Peter Sellars’ talk for Girls of the Golden West was in the main auditorium and similarly well attended. Some of Seattle Opera’s patrons will get the most out of the evening by going both to the pre-show talk (their 330 seat lecture theatre fills up) and to the half hour post-show talkback, where Lang or a dramaturg colleague will host debate about what’s been on stage just a few minutes before. Bennett leads similar sessions in San Diego after every performance.

<i>Girls of the Golden West</i>: Hye-Jung Lee (Ah Sing), Paul Appleby (Joe Cannon) © Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera
Girls of the Golden West: Hye-Jung Lee (Ah Sing), Paul Appleby (Joe Cannon)
© Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

US opera companies – in all states – are funded differently from their European counterparts. European companies – one thinks particularly of Germany – may prize the artistic freedom afforded by a large state subsidy or may chafe against the bureaucratic machinations required to keep that subsidy secure. In the US, state subsidies are virtually non-existent, with funding from donors of 60% being not untypical. A portion of that is from trusts and foundations, but donor pyramid is a broad one, with the bulk of the money coming from individual audience members with pockets of widely varying depth: and that demands a high degree of closeness between the company and its audience.

In LA, that closeness is palpable: my next door neighbour at Nabucco harangued me to give “our James” a good write-up and the feel I got from talking to various audience members made Koelsch’s frequent references to “the LA Opera family” seem like no more than a simple reflection of the way everyone seemed to feel about things. In San Francisco, Shilvock has turned fund-raising from a necessary evil into “some of the most exciting and most rewarding parts of my job”, as he sees the joy and fulfilment that his donors get from being involved in the creative process of the art form about which they are passionate – one can’t help but notice the contrast in attitude with recent reports from Glyndebourne. And if SF Opera does anything “at odds with our audience aspirations”, Shilvock will hear about it not just through the box office but through fundraising. However, since “the donor audience in San Francisco is very interested in a broad and diverse artistic programme”, he’s entirely comfortable that no degree of dumbing down results.

San Diego Opera went through a near-death experience in 2014 when Bennett’s predecessor, Ian Campbell, announced that the company would be closing down. The decision was rescinded, a fact which Bennett describes as “largely the result of an outpouring of the community here” and feels that his job is to move along the mission that the company must “try to be a community asset”.

<i>The Pearl Fishers</i>: Alfredo Daza (Zurga), Nino Machaidze (Leila) © Ken Howard | LA Opera
The Pearl Fishers: Alfredo Daza (Zurga), Nino Machaidze (Leila)
© Ken Howard | LA Opera

When it comes to standard repertoire, the choice of directorial styles is diverse: there doesn’t seem to be either the pressure felt in Germany that “you can’t do the same old thing in the same old way” or (San Diego apart) the opposite view that “you must do classic operas in a classic staging”. Lang, a stage director himself, deliberately chooses a range of different styles, including Peter Konwitschny’s radically pared-down version of La Traviata, which split the Seattle audience: “For some people, it was ‘where are the frocks?’, but a lot of other people suddenly understood the piece for the first time. Not everyone's going to like everything we do. If you try to make everyone like everything you do and develop a uniform style, you then run the danger of the whole thing imploding and becoming boring.” Koelsch is happy to do non-traditional productions, citing Penny Woolcock’s Asian tsunami setting of the Pearl Fishers as a successful production “that takes something that is often depicted in a kind of kitschy fairy tale world and yanks it into something in which there are credible external dangers”. He is comfortable with regietheater productions as long as they give an intersection point between the audience and the piece: “I think that where things really go south for us in the opera world is when the audience is shut out of the piece, when it is clear that the act of creation happened in this kind of hermetically sealed way and there is no point of access… our audience will accept any set of aesthetic choices as long as they understand the rules and the rules are made clear to them right out of the gate. So they don't love everything that we do, but I don't think that we can ever be accused of lack of fidelity to the essence of a piece”.

The right sort of concept production is therefore welcome on the Pacific Coast, but artistic merit isn’t always the only consideration. Koelsch praises Barrie Kosky as “a master craftsman” (his Zauberflöte is LA’s house production), and Lang agrees, but an attempt to bring Kosky’s West Side Story to the West Coast foundered on the rocks of the Seattle trade unions, who refused to allow the use of stage smoke.

For all of these companies, the number of main stage productions per year isn’t as high as they would like, limited by money and/or the constraints of time slots in a shared building. Each is pursuing other initiatives: LA Opera’s “Off Grand” initiative (so named because Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles) is now in its fifth year, beginning to mature as the focus for “a really exciting vanguard of contemporary music” that Koelsch feels would be uneconomic on the main stage. San Francisco’s Wilsey Center for Opera is just two years old; the company is at the beginning of what sounds like a similar journey. Seattle’s chamber opera programme has grown out of its educational work.

Taube Atrium Theater at Wilsey Center for Opera © Jesse Goff
Taube Atrium Theater at Wilsey Center for Opera
© Jesse Goff

While money may always be tight, none of my interviewees regard their art form as being in anything other than rude health, and none of them worry about a greying audience. Koelsch regards a greying audience “as a little bit of a renewable resource. We try to make people feel secure and comfortable in their approach to the art form, and logic dictates that we’ll lose them for two decades between 25 and 45 as people  build their careers and families. Then, hopefully, they will come back to us and their hair will start to turn a little grey and that’s OK with us too.”

In one thing, however, West Coast audiences are no different from the Old World. This summer, San Francisco will be staging three Ring Cycles, and the tickets for these sell out faster than anything else that they produce – just as the vast majority of Covent Garden Ring Cycle tickets are snapped up within moments of going on sale. Shilvock puts it down to the Ring being “the epitome of what opera is striving to do, which is to tell the most profound stories of humanity.”

The word “storytelling” is one thing that keeps cropping up in conversations with all of my interviewees – for stories as diverse as the Ring, La Traviata, Candide, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs or San Diego’s commission for 2020 based on the lives of Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, with directors as diverse as Francesca Zambello, Barrie Kosky, Peter Konwitschny or Thaddeus Strassberger. The commitment to developing young artists is another; the feeling of closeness with the audience is a third. And that’s a great set of starting points on which to build a future.