(Above) Amanda Balltrip as Tallulah Carter, left and Sarah Klopfenstein as Lucy Perez, scurry from Christopher Baker as Tobias, during a rehearsal for the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's production of Thomas Pasatieri's Hotel Casablanca. (Below) Richard Kagey, director of Hotel Casablanca. Copyrighted photos by Pablo Alcala for the Herald-Leader and Kentucky.com.
Thomas Pasatieri’s Hotel Casablanca is getting the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre in on a growing trend in the music world: premieres of new operas. It wasn’t a common thing just a few years ago.
“It’s only been in the last five to six years that this tremendous jump in new works has happened,” says Richard Kagey, the opera’s director. “In the last eight years, we’ve had more new opera than I remember in most of my life.”
Indeed, for decades you’d have the occasional new work from Carlisle Floyd or John Adams. But the opera establishment’s idea of staying up to date seemed to be sticking a Big Mac in Don Giovanni’s hand — not that we have anything against Peter Sellars’ interpretations. The past few years though have yielded a steady stream of new pieces, including Philip Glass’ Appomattox, which opened Friday at San Francisco Opera. To Kagey, the event that said a change was afoot was the world premiere of Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy at the Metropolitan Opera.
“For the Met to do an English-language premiere is almost unheard of,” Kagey says. John Corligiano’s Ghost of Versailles was the only other one that came to mind.
The Central Kentucky region has been in on the action. Cincinnati Opera co-commissioned Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner, with a libretto by Toni Morrison, and presented its second production in July 2005. Three years earlier, it presented Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. This summer, Cincy will present Daniel Catan’s Florencia in the Amazon, the company’s first opera in Spanish. UK Opera has been in on the act, too, presenting works such as Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince, which premiered at the Houston Grand Opera, in 2005 and Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire in 2003.
Signing on as a co-producer of a world premiere is something new for UK, though it’s also part of the growing new opera trend. Numerous productions have been co-commissioned by as many as five opera companies, who share expenses for, among other things, costumes and sets. For Hotel Casablanca, UK Opera partnered with San Francisco’s Merola Young Artists Program, which presented the first performances of the opera in August.
One thing that makes Casablanca unique in the world of new opera is it's a comedy.
“Everything has been a drama,” says Kagey, who has been the director or assistant director of four world premiers in the last five years, and has seen nine. “As much as I am excited about new English-language opera, for godsakes guys, it can be funny. It’s all such angst. I mean, the most comic opera written outside of this in the last 10 years has been Little Women, and you can’t call it a knee-slapper.”
The culprits in the cessation of new operas up until recently have included the dominance of atonal and minimalist composers in the 20th century that didn’t prove popular with audiences and a reluctance by opera companies to take the financial risks involved in presenting new operas, including lower ticket sales. UK Opera, like many other opera companies, has taken hits at the box office when it has presented new works as opposed to the Madama Butterflies and Carmens. But audiences are starting to turn around, says Kagey, who offered Fort Worth (Texas) Opera’s premiere of Pasatieri’s Frau Margot this summer as an example. The opera was staged in a film noir style and, Kagey says, “The minute they found out it was in a film noir style, out of the woodwork came the 20- and 30-year-olds that wanted to see ‘the opera that’s sort of like a movie.’”
Young people are a big reason Kagey says opera repertoire needs updating.
“We all still love the great and wonderful grand operas, and we love to hear them be sung,” Kagey says. “When the audience that is the Boheme-Carmen lovers is no longer with us, I’m not sure the 30-year-old audience is ready for that. They’ll discover those operas and sometimes fall in love with them. But I’m not sure they’ll come down the street for them.”
~ Related read: Here's an interesting interview with John Adams from the Baltimore Sun.