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Think opera peaked 200 years ago? These artists want to change your mind.

New artists, new stories, new musical ideas. Opera is undergoing its most dramatic revolution in centuries.

By Schuyler Velasco

On a warm Friday evening in mid-November, the line of ticketholders waiting to get into the Cutler Majestic Theatre in downtown Boston snaked around the block past a sports bar, a Panera, the W Hotel, and two parking garages. They were there for the world premiere of Iphigenia, an opera by jazz titan Wayne Shorter, with a libretto from its star, Esperanza Spalding. But this wasn’t your stereotypical opera crowd.

“This line is f***ing LONG!” a college-aged kid with a gold earring and a red leather bomber jacket shouted as he bounded up to meet his friends. Farther down, a twenty-something couple in jeans and baggy sweaters worried aloud that the show’s late start meant their marijuana buzz might wear off before the house lights dimmed. “It’s ok; we can enjoy art without being high,” the woman mused, in a seeming effort to convince herself. 

Onstage, the casual vibe persisted. Both musically and in its staging, …(Iphigenia) — the styling of the title was changed for subsequent performances — casts a critical eye on the Wagnerian-style retellings of ancient myths, foundational to many of the best-known opera works. In this version of the story — based on the Greek myth in which the title character is sacrificed to the gods by her father, Agamemnon, to improve his chances in a military campaign — the Greek soldiers are brutes swilling from red Solo cups. Helen of Troy appears, briefly, in the form of a blow-up doll. Six different actresses play versions of Iphigenia — capped off by Spalding, clad in an iridescent jumpsuit. An opera-standard pit orchestra gives way to a jazz trio at key dramatic moments; Spalding’s singing vacillates between the two styles. Whether or not the whole thing fully hangs together is an open question. “I can’t say we figured out how to do it,” Spalding said in a panel discussion following the premiere, about deciding how the story onstage would ultimately end. But this show was trying something.

The same could be said for opera writ large: Right now, it’s trying something. Like many other artistic and social spheres in the United States, the opera world has in recent years seen an influx of diverse talent and nontraditional voices. And those artists are bringing new ideas to a genre that arguably peaked in terms of mainstream cultural relevance 200 years ago.

“Audiences seem much more receptive to new work in opera than they are to new work in the symphony.”

Anthony De Ritis, composer and Northeastern University music professor

Many of these new works incorporate elements of other genres — not just jazz, but slam poetry, computer music, and non-Western musical styles. And many of them come from creators best known for work outside opera itself. Spalding, Shorter, and Terence Blanchard — the composer of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, a new opera that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2021-2022 season in New York — gained fame as jazz musicians. Jeanine Tesori, composer of Blue, a 2019 opera about a Harlem family whose son is shot by police, is best known for Broadway musicals like Fun Home and Caroline, or Change.

Together, these and other artists are upending traditional ideas about what belongs in opera: the musical elements, the dramatic structure, the kinds of stories that should be told, and the kinds of people who should do the telling.

Anthony De Ritis, a composer and music professor at Northeastern University, contends that deep in their hearts, all composers want to write opera — to see their vision play out on that most grandiose of stages. (Shorter, 88, has characterized Iphigenia as the realization of his lifelong dream to compose in the genre.) De Ritis has spent the bulk of his career creating electronic and computer-generated music, often incorporating orchestral elements. In experimental music circles, he is probably best-known for Devolution: A Concerto for DJ and Symphony Orchestra, which features a full pit and the artist DJ Spooky as soloist.

Still, opera is different, De Ritis says, for musicians and audiences alike: The totality of the experience makes it the perfect medium to try new musical ideas and to entice listeners to come along for the ride.

“Audiences seem much more receptive to new work in opera than they are to new work in the symphony,” De Ritis says. “There are more ways to communicate the story: visuals, sound, acting, text. So that’s a whole variety of streams of information that allow people to get used to, and understand, what’s going on. And you get to control the whole environment.”

In August 2021, De Ritis and the poet Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, an English and Africana studies professor at Northeastern, received a grant from the Boston Foundation for a musical adaptation of Bertram’s 2020 poetry collection, Travesty Generator. Even in the realm of newer opera, the source material is radical. In the book, a nominee for the 2020 National Book Award in poetry, Bertram reshapes texts generated by computer code into poems meditating on stories of the Black experience — from Harriet Tubman to Eric Garner. The poems explore algorithmic bias and aim to draw a connection between the modern-day tyranny of data aggregation and historical oppression like slavery and Jim Crow.

“You don’t necessarily see the computer code that denies you a mortgage based on your Blackness, but it’s the same ‘code’ that denied you a mortgage based on your Blackness in 1950, and denied you your humanity in 1820 or 1790,” Bertram explains. “I’m trying to make this connection across time — we think of algorithms as mathematical things, and they are, but they’re essentially rules and constraints.”

De Ritis, who is white, envisions the eventual product as an operatic song cycle, with a group of mostly Black vocalists and instrumentalists from jazz, musical theater, and traditional opera backgrounds collaborating to shape the interpretation of each poem. In one early rehearsal last fall, Davron Monroe, a musical theater actor, and Brittany Wells, a jazz soprano, improvised a call-and-response repetition of the term “code switch,” accompanied by a bass clarinet. In another, Brianna Robinson, an emerging artist at the Boston Lyric Opera, sang variations of the line “I can’t breathe” in a soaring soprano, abruptly cutting her breath support and sound at intermittent moments.

Compared to her work in more traditional classical music, where the technical aspects are often set and written out for her, her first rehearsal on Travesty Generator was “a much more fluid experience,” Robinson says. She was adjusting elements like phrasing, volume, and even which octave she was singing in as she went along. “It’s a more theatrical type of performance — the way that maybe slam poetry is done, with breaks and giving things more emphasis, elongating words,” she says.

Experimentation of this kind isn’t totally new in the American opera world, but for decades it was largely confined to its margins. Among its most noted practitioners was Robert Ashley, an experimental music pioneer and director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in Oakland in the 1970s. Ashley, who died in 2014, created a series of operas meant for television, incorporating electronic music, video elements, and a decidedly non-operatic, improvisational singing style. One, Perfect Lives, premiered on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in 1984. 

In music history and musicology circles, Ashley is “a giant,” says David Bernstein, a musicologist and music professor at Mills. In both his compositions and as an academic administrator, “he encouraged everyone to be as weird as they wanted to be.”

But Ashley’s work received little contemporary attention in the United States, and virtually none from the mainstream opera world, says Kyle Gann, Ashley’s biographer and an experimental composer in his own right who has created a handful of operas. “There’s been a big split in American music for at least 60 years now,” Gann says. “The classical people … are not affected by the rest of us, whom they see as a minority culture they don’t have to pay attention to.”

That ossification is in part a financial issue. In many European countries, opera gets substantial government funding, allowing companies there the leeway to take more risks. De Ritis says that in Germany, which has a robust opera culture, “you cannot put out an opera now without multiple interactive multimedia elements. They’re creating works that are pushing the technology.”

But in the U.S., where opera companies rely more on ticket sales and grant funding, their choices tend to be more conservative, says Heidi Waleson, the opera critic for the Wall Street Journal and the author of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America. The hits — Mozart, Verdi, Puccini — are a sure thing, so they keep getting played. “The opera business is very white and very set in its ways,” Waleson says. “It has this reservoir of standard repertoire by dead European white men, and those are the pieces that get done, year after year, after year, after year.” De Ritis agrees: “Here, bringing a synthesizer into the orchestra still freaks them out.”

The closed nature of opera extends beyond the instruments. A female composer had a work staged at the Met for the first time in 1903; the second time was in 2016. Even a push in the 1980s to get works by more living composers, like Philip Glass, into the repertoire of major opera houses was seen at the time as a radical notion, Waleson says.

And before this recent run of new works, American opera had a long history of denying major stagings to works by Black composers — even very famous ones. Scott Joplin wrote an opera, Treemonisha, a fable about Black rights and education, in 1911; he had to self-publish the score. James P. Johnson, a jazz hitmaker, wrote a one-act blues opera, De Organizer, with a libretto by Langston Hughes about sharecroppers fighting to form a labor union. After three small New York-area performances in the 1940s, the musical score for the work disappeared for decades; scholars rediscovered a copy in a choir director’s old notebook in the late 1990s. And commercial opera hasn’t historically been culturally up-to-date, to put it mildly. The Metropolitan Opera didn’t stop staging productions of Verdi’s Otello with white tenors singing the title role in blackface until 2015.

In contrast, much of the new work that has recently broken through at major opera houses — garnering attention from audiences and critics — comes from outside the classical tradition in almost every way. Fire Shut Up in My Bones is remarkable not just for its nearly all-Black cast and jazz- and gospel-infused score, but also its staging choices and challenging source material: New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s 2014 memoir of the same name, which, in part, details Blow’s childhood molestation by a relative. A traditional opera ballet gives way to an omnipresent modern dance chorus. Echoing a rhetorical device in Blow’s book, the lead character is sung simultaneously by a baritone and a boy soprano.

“I am not sure there has been a comparable moment in the history of American opera.”

Francesca Zambello, director of the Glimmerglass Festival

There’s also Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, a 2016 operatic adaptation of a Lars von Trier movie (yep) that opened at the LA Opera this past spring. Waleson recalls hearing a melodica — hardly a traditional orchestra instrument — in the pit, and considering it a transformative experience.

Breaking the Waves is about a devoutly religious Scottish housewife whose paralyzed husband asks her to pursue sexual relationships with other men, resulting in her excommunication from the church and her eventual, violent death. And while it’s counterintuitively operatic — the tale, after all, of a tragic heroine — it’s also representative of the different types of stories many modern operas are telling. Traditional opera fodder is heavy on mythology, palace intrigue, and the exoticizing of foreign cultures — Madama Butterfly, Turandot. Even some modern operas, like John Adams’ Nixon in China (1987) and Derrick Wang’s Scalia/Ginsburg (2015), have often focused on powerful, larger-than-life figures.

But many emerging operas are telling smaller stories about regular people — or rethinking classic myths from a modern perspective. That was the impetus for Iphigenia, as Spalding described it at the panel. “I feel tired of these protagonists where, somehow, all the terms of the world are concentrated on them,” she said. “It feels really reflective of monarchy, or a time when you have powerful patrons who want to feel reflected in the dynamics onstage.”

Such recastings of classic fare, and fresh new stories, are coming from increasingly diverse production teams. Fire Shut Up in My Bones was also the first work by a Black librettist, Kasi Lemmons, to appear on the Met’s mainstage. The director of Iphigenia, Lileana Blain-Cruz, is set to make her directorial debut on Broadway this spring. Established companies have staged new operas from creators of color in recent years about Trayvon Martin, the Central Park 5, and the colonization of California through the eyes of its Indigenous people.

“I am not sure there has been a comparable moment in the history of American opera,” says Francesca Zambello, director of the Glimmerglass Festival, the storied opera organization in upstate New York that gave Blue its premiere. The industry, she says, is “finally getting serious about developing opera that represents America in all its diversity and complexity.”

Waleson says that at the moment, at least, there’s a big appetite from foundations and large-scale donors to back such projects. And in the calendars of U.S. opera houses, big and small, what constitutes opera canon is getting a second look.

Glimmerglass’s recent offerings include a Southeast Asian composer’s adaptation of The Jungle Book, which incorporates Indian music and dance styles, and a song cycle about Sally Hemings. The Boston Modern Opera Project, an organization that won a Grammy for best opera recording in 2020, announced in October a five-year endeavor to stage new and historically overlooked operas by Black composers, including Anthony Davis’ X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, from 1986. “Opera companies have finally realized if they don’t get on the train, they are not going to survive,” Waleson says.

It turns out, these new works are drawing audiences, as well. The Met’s eight performances of Fire Shut Up in My Bones sold out instantly; Iphigenia went on to play sold-out dates at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as well as several performances on the West Coast. And many believe that new patrons, intrigued by these productions that look so different from classic opera, are likely to return for more. “When my mom sees something, and she sees that there are other Black people onstage and off, she’s more excited,” says Robinson, the soprano performing in Travesty Generator. “In order to make your audience as diverse as you would want, you have to change the look of the stage. You have to change the look of the production team. You have to change the look of your staff.”

Robinson hopes that these new stories will appeal to traditional opera audiences, as well. In her mind, opera is the perfect medium to compel audiences to understand and connect to Black experiences in America. But — just as De Ritis believes that every composer wants to write an opera — Robinson contends that every artist has always belonged to the genre, even when they weren’t allowed in.

“The thought that I don’t want people to have is that we’re trying to bring these stories to white people in a way that they’ll understand, and that’s why we’re doing it in opera,” she says. “No. Black people are opera singers. Black people grow up with this music deeply ingrained into our bones, too.”

That’s because of the nature of opera itself — an epic genre that can set the stage for epic stakes.

“Opera is the grandeur of emotions being brought out by a human screaming beautifully,” Robinson says. “It makes sense to bring our stories to the forefront in this form because that’s what we always do. Why not do it in classical music?”

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Schuyler Velasco is Experience’s deputy editor.

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