American opera has experienced some notable upheaval over the past several months, first with the closing of the New York City Opera late last year, then with the announcement that the 49-year-old San Diego Opera will cease operations at the end of this season, resulting in unseemly allegations regarding its management; even the Metropolitan Opera is bracing itself for possible labor disputes. The NYCO’s declaration of bankruptcy brought forth yet again the topic of opera’s relevance as an art form in today’s culture, inspiring one Salon writer (1) to compare the closure of the seventy-year-old company to the extinction of the dodo.

Megan Schubert performing at the 2013 Resonant Bodies Festival © Bruce King
Megan Schubert performing at the 2013 Resonant Bodies Festival
© Bruce King

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to call New York a “one-opera town”(2), as newer and smaller opera companies are flourishing in the Big Apple, according to several opera-makers with whom I recently spoke. A prime example of this flourishing is a consortium of over 30 New York opera companies and producers called the New York Opera Alliance (NYOA), launched in 2013. Speaking on behalf of the NYOA, stage director Benjamin Spierman stated that most of the NYOA members are, “producing opera in non-traditional venues [which] are generally smaller… so the only way to produce opera is to either choose chamber operas or adapt existing operas to chamber forces”. As mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen put it to me, “The more recent rise of chamber opera is likely attributable to the original reasons chamber opera became popular: smaller ensembles of singers and instrumentalists as well as the ability to perform them in a wide variety of spaces”.

Amber Youell, of Morningside Opera, elaborated on this point: “Historically, grand opera existed as a form of self-representation for the ruling classes. But the trend toward chamber operas...reflects the changing dynamic of opera audiences”, who, she believes, “often prefer a more intimate, up-close experience”. Spierman agreed that, “there is an audience-related reason [for performing chamber opera]; we are trying to get people to see ‘opera’ as having a broader definition than it used to have”. Indeed, some composers, like Experiments in Opera (EiO) co-founder Matthew Welch, feel that the term chamber opera is too limiting, denoting “a pocket-sized genre”, whereas for Welch the addition of voices and a theatrical element to his music was actually “an expansion of forces”. Soprano Megan Schubert, who has performed in past EiO productions, called opera, “a mouldable medium. It's not stuck on a stage”.

The lure of the chamber opera for those I interviewed is truly a mix of financial viability, flexibility of performance, and the opportunities for innovative use of multimedia and other cross-discipline collaborations. Welch said that while “financial considerations do impact the work, in that I maybe only work with smaller forces”, this is primarily due to his desire to “work directly with musicians as a producer, more than seeking much larger instrumentation through more institutional means” and thereby relinquishing some of the creative control. Jason Cady (EiO) similarly asserted that his writing is only impacted by budget in that he might be “more ambitious” with instrumentation if more money were available, though “that does not necessarily entail an orchestra”.

“The ecosystems of the music and entertainment industries have changed drastically,” Schubert stated, and as we see the established mode of opera production slipping, “something more adaptable will have to take its place”. Ihnen pointed out that, as young singers enter into a difficult economy, “they decide to make their own opportunities. I've seen a handful of [smaller chamber] groups come and go since 2007, which is more a testament to their status as project-based groups rather than full-time organizations”. Ihnen continued: “I think the rise of chamber opera is truly due to the ‘maker culture’ influence in classical music”.

Megan Ihnen and Andrew Etherington in Schubert’s The Conspirators as part of Opera AACC
Megan Ihnen and Andrew Etherington in Schubert’s The Conspirators as part of Opera AACC

The maker culture influence is evident in the fact that the majority of these groups are performing new works, to the point that repertoire is something of a non-consideration. Spierman guessed that almost half of the operas being produced by NYOA members are commissions. “Some newer works will undoubtedly find themselves produced repeatedly. But you never know which ones.  But that's always been the case...in 1900, the Puccini and Leoncavallo Bohèmes had pretty equal standing, and everybody knew Auber's Fra Diavolo”. Schubert turned the question back on itself, wondering, “Is becoming part of ‘the repertory’ the final goal of an opera? [Are] these works eventually supposed to be performed and interpreted by other people besides the original collaborators?” Ihnen mentioned that, “Rhymes With Opera has been consistently producing new chamber operas, while hexaCollective and Charm City Collegium have been focusing on some of the more recognizable chamber operas like [Britten’s] The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring”.

Rhymes with Opera performs David Smooke's Criminal Intent © Anthony Trujillo
Rhymes with Opera performs David Smooke's Criminal Intent
© Anthony Trujillo

All of the artists I spoke with agreed that opera is by nature interdisciplinary, “always using the latest technology available depending on budget,” as Schubert put it, and that the use of multimedia – video and image projections as well as sophisticated lighting technology – is a “crucial design element” (Spierman) for any opera production, chamber or not. Aaron Siegel (EiO) stated that, “part of the fun of working in opera is that there are a lot of really good reasons to use visual images in the service of story”. Youell explained how multimedia could fill the gap that a small budget creates in the way of elaborate costumes or sets, but emphasized that the use of multimedia, “is also about today's entertainment preferences – video, photos, any kind of ‘screen’... Opera action and opera time move very slowly to audiences used to film and modern theater. Using other interdisciplinary elements can help keep audiences engaged and help them understand how to link the musical and dramatic elements in opera's very particular way”.

In the end, as long as artists are passionate to perform and audiences are eager to fill seats, we will continue to see opera evolve and adapt in new and interesting ways. Schubert stressed the importance of impassioned creativity, saying, “make it personal and worthwhile, or go home. You're competing against everything already recorded with budgets you've only dreamed of (and likely available online for free) and watchable from the comfort of somebody's couch”. Siegel agreed, stating that opera is no different from its counterparts in film and television, in that it engages with the question of “how to tell personal or unusual stories with authenticity”. In addition, while some established American companies find themselves in peril, sales are up for Lyric Opera of Chicago and Chicago Opera Theater according to a March Reuters report, to which branching out of the repertoire as well as the opera house are credited.  In any case, it seems opera need not be placed on the endangered species list just yet.


(1) Anna Nicole Smith killed the New York City Opera (Salon, 16.11.13)

(2) Why City Opera May Bite the Dust, and What That Means for New York (New York Observer 14.6.11)