Outreach and innovation are two buzzwords that pop up again and again in relation to established “classical” music institutions such as symphony orchestras and opera companies. In an effort to build younger audiences, many of these institutions have introduced new programs that attempt to do away with the of the concert-going experience, such as expensive tickets or the need for a certain type of attire, that might discourage younger or less experienced listeners from attending.
A perfect example is the English National Opera’s initiative “Undress for the Opera”, whose launch last year included such pop icons as Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) and Terry Gilliam (Monty Python, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). “Undress” aims at a younger audience by offering affordable tickets, opportunities to meet the cast post-performance, and “club-style” bars, as well as a refreshing mix of new and old works throughout the season (by Mozart, Verdi, Glass, and Michel van der Aa).
While the challenge for large, established companies like ENO is to attract younger audiences, the challenge for the many smaller, newly-established companies out there is simply that of creating work that holds true to an overall mission of performing and creating opera that holds relevance and meaning to contemporary audiences of all ages. Two such companies here in New York City typify the main thrusts of that mission, which involve either: (1) reimagining old works, or, (2) developing new works that stretch traditional conceptions of opera.
Morningside Opera, founded four years ago by a group of Columbia University musicology PhD students, has performed works from Britten to Handel, incorporating their musicological savvy with a modern sensibility that often pushes at the boundaries of decency (much like the original works did in their own time). Case in point is their most recent production, ¡Figaro! (90210), which recasts Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro as “a zany farce about immigration and citizenship in 21st-century America.”
MO’s setting of Cherubino’s aria “Non so più” speaks for itself:
Experiments in Opera, founded two years ago by a collective of composers and performers, on the other hand focuses solely on producing newly composed works. EiO defines opera as “the hybrid space of the theater, performance, installation, dance and storytelling arts”, a definition borne out by performances that have included libretto-as-comic-book (Jason Cady’s Happiness Is the Problem) and works like Matthew Welch’s Borges and the Other, based on Jorge Luis Borges’ short story about a meeting between an older Borges and a younger Borges.
Both of these performances remind us that the genre of opera is not a repository of museum pieces but a living, breathing art. Morningside Opera’s take on Figaro leads us to reconsider an opera that was politically timely in the 18th century to be just as relevant in the 21st. EiO’s performance reveals new ways for opera’s inherently multi-media substance to tell a story for a new age. Both performances demonstrate that the art of opera is still a vital genre, one that continues to inspire composers and performers to break new ground.