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Do we have to wait until 2019 for new American opera at the Met?

By David Cote
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This week the Metropolitan Opera announced its 2015-16 season and for lovers of classic repertoire from Italy, France and Germany, the news was welcome: new productions of Verdi’s Otello, Alban Berg’s Lulu, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Strauss’s Elektra and more. The New Year’s Eve gala performance will be a new staging of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles. The Met is bringing back several worthy directors, including Sirs Richard Eyre and David McVicar, Penny Woolcock and (most exciting for me) art-star William Kentridge (whose multimedia staging of Shostakovich’s The Nose was a high point of recent years).

But for those looking for new American opera—or at least examples of our native output from the past decade or so—the lineup can be disappointing. Producers, conductors, singers and librettists (such as yours truly) took to social media to grumble about the lack of new titles this season. You could easily assemble a short list of great recent work that would fit on the Met’s mammoth stage: Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick or Dead Man Walking; Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night; some would like to see Daniel Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas (1996) finally make it to the Met, as Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer eventually did. There were plans to revive John Corigliano's 1991 “grand opera buffa” The Ghosts of Versailles at the Met in 2008, but they fell through. LA Opera just had a smashing success with it, with Darko Tresnjak directing.

You can go further back and wonder where the American classics are: Isn’t it time to revive Porgy and Bess, Samuel Barber’s Vanessa and Bernstein’s A Quiet Place?

There is a silver lining, of sorts. Yesterday the Met also announced that it has commissioned Nico Muhly (pictured above) to compose a work based on Marnie, the 1961 Winston Graham novel that Alfred Hitchcock turned into a movie. British playwright Nicholas Wright will pen the libretto. The opera is a co-commission with the English National Opera and will have its world premiere in 2017. Marnie’s Met premiere is scheduled for the 2019-20 season. For those who liked Muhly’s previous Met commission, Two Boys, that’s cheering news. But will there be no other new American operas there for the next five years? Like other companies, the Met develops new work, and they are supposedly working on pieces with formidable writers: Lynn Nottage, Ricky Ian Gordon, Jeanine Tesori, Tony Kushner, Joshua Schmidt, David T. Little and others. We can only wait for news on those percolating projects.

There’s a parallel topic here that will have to wait for another day: Do those who commission new opera (and new plays, for that matter) have a big enough vision? Musically, narratively, socially, scenographically—are the ideas broad and dynamic enough to fill the Met stage and make a dent in the culture the way, say, Hamilton is doing at the Public Theater right now? If opera could rise to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s storytelling level, wouldn’t it be grand?

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