If you heard any opera news in recent days, it’s probably about how the Metropolitan Opera is threatening to lock out workers if an agreement isn’t reached with unions by next Thursday. Such an impasse would cause a delay—if not the wholesale cancellation—of the season.
While we hope Peter Gelb settles the dispute, we’re here to tell you that the Met isn’t the only game in town. Although many were dismayed by last year’s implosion of New York City Opera, small and resourceful companies exist to put on new work for younger, diverse audiences. These groups hit high Cs in apartments (Loft Opera) and bars (Opera on Tap); they repurpose more obscure chamber works (Opera Moderne); or they incubate avant-garde novelties (Experiments in Opera). Development hubs such as American Opera Projects and American Lyric Theater are crucial to the creation of new repertoire. And the much-admired opera-theater hybrid festival Prototype heads into its third year in January with a fresh lineup. (That includes a world premiere from yours truly. More on that below.)
So there’s no shortage of intimate, inexpensive opera to be had. For example, this Saturday night you can catch composer Daniel Felsenfeld’s She, After, a presented by The Secret Opera—one night only in Williamsburg. In this pair of monodramas we follow two 19th-century fictional ladies—Nora of A Doll’s House and Alice of Alice in Wonderland—after their literary adventures have ended. This show especially caught our eye due to the librettist of Nora, In the Great Outdoors: Will Eno. We’ve enjoyed his spare, funny, strange plays on Broadway and Off, and we know his elliptical, haunting language will translate beautifully into sung lines.
Eno certainly has company. For centuries, playwrights have dabbled in libretti, and the tradition continues today. In recent years we’ve seen work co-authored by big-name dramatists: Terrence McNally (Dead Man Walking), David Henry Hwang (An American Soldier) and Craig Lucas (Two Boys, pictured above). Newcomers include Stephen Karam (Dark Sisters), John Patrick Shanley (Doubt) and Lynn Nottage, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to adapt her own play, Intimate Apparel. Just today, Nilo Cruz was at a workshop of Bel Canto, which he adapted from the 2001 novel by Ann Patchett. (Your humble theater editor has also been known to dabble here and there.)
Playwrights have a special advantage in writing libretti. More than poets or pure librettists, they tend to have better instincts for deepening character, teasing out humor and writing active scenes, avoiding the dramatic stasis or narrative inertia that libretti often fall into—no matter how good the music may be. Or, at least, that’s my theory. You can decide for yourself by getting tickets to She, After here.