Wednesday, June 21, 2006

American Fine Arts Critic Asks, Has American Opera Finally Arrived? ... And What About American Musicals?

"When Central City Opera [near Denver, Colorado] first presented "The Ballad of Baby Doe" in 1956, the world premiere came more than 350 years after Claudio Monteverdi's "Orfeo," which is generally considered the first operatic masterpiece.

Although Italy can claim an unbroken four- century opera tradition, it's almost impossible to delineate an American operatic tradition because the form is still so comparatively young in this country.

Some earlier examples exist, but the first golden age of American opera dates back only to the 1950s, with the creation of such landmark works as Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah" and Douglas Moore's "Baby Doe," which will see a new production at the Central City Opera opening Saturday.

Given this short history, it's not surprising that American opera hasn't yet arrived. But there is plenty of evidence that it is getting there.

No American operas made Opera America's list of the 20 most produced works in North America in 2004-05, but the organization's professional member companies did mount a not-insubstantial 68 productions of American pieces, including eight world premieres.

Since 1990, almost 200 new operatic works have been produced by professional opera companies in North America. The 2005-06 season saw debuts of John Adams' "Doctor Atomic" at the San Francisco Opera and Tobias Picker's "An American Tragedy" at the Metropolitan Opera.

In Europe, the English National Opera opened a production of Adams' "Nixon in China" on Wednesday, and the Opéra de Marseille presented Gian Carlo Menotti's obscure "Maria Golovin" in May.

"It's still not anywhere as accepted as the standard rep clearly is," said Peter G. Davis, music critic for New York magazine. "It takes a special push by companies to put it over. But it does seem to be more accepted now than when I was kid."

The still slightly unformed nature of American opera is reflected in the startling diversity of opinions surrounding it. Experts cannot even agree on exactly how to define the field.

David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera, for example, considers Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Sreet" one of the five most important American operas ever created.

Yet, strictly speaking, it is a musical, getting its start in 1979 at the Uris Theatre on Broadway. Adding to the confusion is George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," which also opened on the Great White Way but is generally accepted as an opera.

Musicals and operas have traditionally been differentiated by their degree of through-composed music, the kinds of voices they require and, more recently, by Broadway's insistence on amplification. But, increasingly, these distinctions are becoming blurred.

"We ourselves no longer know what is and what is not a contemporary opera," said conductor James Conlon, who becomes music director of the Los Angeles Opera in 2006-07. "This opens up what should be a very impassioned and lively, polemic discussion."

F. Paul Driscoll, Opera News magazine's editor in chief, is leery of opera companies staging musicals, because he believes the two forms require different skills." ...

Kyle MacMillan "Has American opera finally arrived? -- Born in the '50s, the U.S. version still searches for its voice" June 21, 2006

Montezuma's Head-dress, which Cortez brought from the "New World" to the "Old World". Presently, in the Collection of the National Museum of Ethnology, Vienna, Austria; though Mexico is seeking the historic object's return to Mexico City.

"Of the numerous feather artefacts that have been brought from Mexico to Europe only eight have survived over the centuries. Three of them are part of the collection belonging to the Ethnological Museum of Vienna. The best-known piece if the feather headdress which consists of over 450 tailfeathers of the quetzal bird that have been fixed to a fibre net. Part of the fame of this artefact is due to the persistent rumour that this headdress once belonged to Montezuma, penultimate king of the Aztecs. Research has shown that there are no proofs for this assumption.

Towards the end of the 16th century this headdress was part of the Ambras collection of Archduke Ferdinand of Tirol, who had probably bought it from Count Ulrich of Montfort. At that time it was called "Maurisco hat". In the 19th century it was presented to the ethnographic department of the Natural History Museum."

Gerard W. van Bussel

National Museum of Ethnology, Vienna, Austria

National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

ICOM Virtual Library of World Museums

Photo credit: Microsoft Encarta. With thanks.


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