When I meet new people I’m always reluctant to tell them I compose opera. It’s not because most people hate opera. I’m proud to listen to genres that other people hate – from rap to country to free jazz. No, my hesitation is because sometimes I encounter opera fans and for them, opera equals Puccini and their favorite divas. Confusion then ensues. It’s kind of like telling someone you’re a comedy fan and they assume that means Fatty Arbuckle and Henny Youngman, and when you respond by saying you’re more into John Mulaney and Broad City they give you a blank look and start reciting Henny Youngman one-liners.

But to paraphrase an old joke: art forms are like sharks. They have to keep moving forward or they die. Do we want opera to be a dead shark?

The good news is that opera is alive and well. It’s not just at big opera houses like the Met; it’s underground at music venues, small theaters, and online. And, no, I’m not talking about eccentric stagings of the old classics. You can dress a “war horse” in new clothing but it’s still a horse. Or a shark. Wait, what was I talking about?

I’m talking about new opera being written today. There are many small companies in New York City, and elsewhere, producing new opera such as: Experiments in Opera, Beth Morrison Productions, Rhymes With Opera, ThingNY, and Fresh-Squeezed Opera. Full disclosure: I founded Experiments in Opera with Aaron Siegel and Matthew Welch; Kamala Sankaram and I are the current Artistic Directors. I’m going to talk about some recent operas, including a few I worked on as a producer or composer.

Jason Cady’s <i>Buick City, 1:00 AM</i> is a podcast opera © Lauren Kolesinskas
Jason Cady’s Buick City, 1:00 AM is a podcast opera
© Lauren Kolesinskas

Sasquatch by Roddy Bottum premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017. Experiments in Opera produced a preview performance of it at Roulette, in Brooklyn, in 2015. Roddy Bottum is the keyboard player of Faith No More, a band whose eclecticism was decades ahead of its time. He wrote both the music and the libretto for Sasquatch. The opera is a “misunderstood monster” story about a family that gives Bigfoot tours, which always end with a sighting of Bigfoot because a family member in a costume appears in the distance at just the right time. The twist happens when the family encounters a real life Sasquatch deep in the woods. The ensemble featured two trumpets, tympani, drum machine, and two synthesizers. This unique instrumentation was perfect for the opera: the trumpets depicted the majestic mountain top setting, and the tympani suggested Sasquatch; while the drum machine, synthesizers and the vocal styles conjured Faith No More style metal – yet without guitar. The opera was dark, campy, fun, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Bottum followed it with The Ride, a one-act opera about two characters biking from San Francisco to Los Angeles as part of AIDS/Life Cycle, an annual charity event. Like Sasquatch, Bottum wrote both the libretto and music and it featured an unusual instrumentation: four flutes, two keyboard synthesizers and drumset.

To Music by Nick Hallet has not premiered but the first three acts had preview performances respectively at Roulette, Merkin Hall, and Issue Project Room. The fourth and final act will preview at Roulette on October 23, 2019. The hilarious and relentlessly contemporary story is about a composer getting in trouble over social media, having an affair and stealing music from another artist. Significant portions of the libretto are text messages and online text: instead of being sung these words appear in video behind the singers. Like the two Bottum operas, the composer wrote the libretto himself. I find it special when the composer and the librettist are the same person. Opera is inherently a collaborative medium, but a composer who is also the librettist brings a unity of vision to a project that guarantees a unique perspective. Not all comedians write their own material. We don’t expect Stephen Colbert to write his nightly monologues but when Sarah Silverman comes out with a new special we assume she wrote every word of it, because we’re not just there to laugh, we’re tuning in for her idiosyncratic viewpoint. There may be no better example of the unified vision of a composer/librettist then Anthony Braxton’s Trillium operas.

When I started composing opera nearly 20 years ago the task of writing a libretto felt overwhelming. Composing music is hard enough and maybe I’m attracted to it because my thinking is not always verbal. But over the years, I have come to enjoy writing librettos as much as music. A few years ago I made a video opera called I Screwed Up the Future, which premiered at Anthology Film Archives, in New York City, in 2016. I began the project by thinking about the Y2K problem. Remember Y2K? Computer programmers had been writing code with only two digits, which meant that computers would “freak out” when the millennium happened. I daydreamed about what the ramifications would have been if the Y2K problem had occurred. Maybe Al Gore would have become president. Maybe violence following Y2K would have led to gun control. Maybe the internet would not have developed and created certain problems we now face. I wrote a libretto about this alternate history: the protagonist makes a time machine and travels back to the 90s to prevent Y2K. She succeeds and returns to the present to find herself in the dystopia of the world we now live in. This was before Trump got elected, so my idea of dystopia is now a little quaint.

Opera created specifically for video instead of the stage has been around since at least 1984, with Robert Ashley’s groundbreaking television opera Perfect Lives. More and more opera composers are working in that medium now. One excellent example is Ruby Fulton’s Adam’s Run, which is about a weather forecaster and an environmental televangelist falling in love during the climate change apocalypse. You can watch it on Amazon Prime.

When I wrote I Screwed Up the Future I got an idea for another time-travel story. (Many of my story ideas come in pairs, I have also written two zombie operas.) Instead of making another video, I made a podcast opera. I chose this medium because I love recordings.The record industry is struggling, and podcasts are booming so making a podcast opera just made sense. Plus, many fiction podcasts, such as The Truth, feature sound design so rich it is almost music. I wanted to bring that kind of sound design into opera. My podcast opera, Buick City, 1:00 AM is on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever people get podcasts. The story is about a woman traveling back in time to 1984 to prevent her father’s murder. It takes place in Flint, Michigan, which is where I’m originally from, so although the story is pure fiction, it’s also pretty personal.

Working in new media like video and podcasts is one way of making opera contemporary, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient. Putting old-fashioned music and story in a new medium falls flat.

One example of a composer who consistently does exciting work in new media is Kamala Sankaram. She made a Virtual Reality horror opera called The Parksville Murders. I can’t sum up the story here, but I can tell you it is 100% opera and 100% terrifying. Considering how many horror movies have great soundtracks its a wonder there aren’t more horror operas—such as Matthew Welch’s ReAnimator Requiem, which mashes up the Mass with doom metal and an H.P. Lovecraft story.

Another opera by Sankaram, Looking At You, just premiered this September at HERE in New York City. It is not only a story about “surveillance capitalism,” it also includes data mining, which happens in real time. During the performance social media posts from various audience members pop up on screens in the theater. Sitting in the audience I saw the look of surprise on people’s faces. Everyone enjoyed the “magic trick” aspect of it, but at the same time it caused people to think a little more seriously about the issues raised by the story.

Sankaram created Looking At You with the playwright Rob Handel and they developed it with the director Kristin Marting. I mention this because I just said how much I believe in composer penned librettos. I stand by that opinion, but there are many examples of great operas by libretto and composer teams.

But people are too quick to assume operas must be made by one composer and one librettist. Chunky in Heat premiered at The Flea Theater, May 31, 2019 in New York City. A.M. Homes wrote the libretto based on four short stories she wrote over the last 30 years about the same family. What’s unusual is that six composers—Paula Matthusen, Erin Rogers, Aaron Siegel, Shelley Washington, Matthew Welch, and I—wrote the music. The sounds ranged from thorny to funky. In one of my favorite scenes the protagonist, Cheryl, called Chunky by her neurotic family, is finally on the cusp of escaping them to go off to college which Aaron Siegel set to quasi- Burt Bacharach / Bossanova music.

Sam Kulik’s The Broadcast is an actual baseball game set to music, which he released as a pack of baseball cards with download codes. It’s a strange and entertaining concept album. Kayleigh Butcher’s Koala Ty Toim is an intriguing non-narrative video short. I bring up these last two works in order to wind down to my concluding remarks.

First of all, despite those two examples of effective non-narrative works, opera is usually better when there is a story. Abstraction does not make opera current. The modern era saw many revolutions in the arts. But the modern era is over. Even post-modernism is over. We don’t need to “shock the bourgeoisie” anymore. It’s okay to tell stories again.

Second, I believe in the power of fiction. Most movies are fiction, yet today so many new operas are either biopics or knockoffs of John Adams’s CNN operas. Nixon in China was bad enough. Please spare us Trump in North Korea.

Third, adaptations are fine. I look forward to Aaron Siegel and Mallory Catlett’s Rainbird, which is an adaptation of a Janet Frame novel, and I had fun adapting a Jack Handey story. But many artists are too quick to adapt. Not all novels and movies are right for the stage. Opera needs more original fiction. Opera is its own medium and is best served by stories created specifically for opera.

And finally, dark and serious can be great. But, you know what? Comedy also exists. Sci-fi, mystery, and other genres can be vehicles for weighty ideas, catharsis, and pure enjoyment. Mediocre minds often hide behind seriousness. Opera can be fun.