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From Steve Jobs to The Shining: 6 wild new operas

Editorial Staff

Written by Lev Bratishenko

Last week’s announcement that the Santa Fe Opera has commissioned The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs has ignited a debate about opera commissions. People either whinced at its "immediately clichéd" subject and asinine title, or they welcomed the choice of a first-time opera composer, Bay Area-based Mason Bates, whose compositions often include electronics.

It’s not fair to judge a work that we haven’t heard, but even by the standards of dead white billionaires, Steve Jobs remains oddly prominent in our culture. There's a book and a biopic; do we need an opera? If it’s anything to go by, Bates recently completed a work calledGarages of the Valley, an "orchestral celebration of tech startups," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. So will (R)evolution have a chorus of suicidal Chinese factory workers? Will Jobs’s abandoned daughter have an aria? How will it handle his refusal of medical care for homeopathy?

Regardless of any musical inventiveness, if (R)evolution ignores complexities and contradictions to simply repeat myths that glorify Silicon Valley, this commission will reinforce the impression that opera is an echo chamber, and I think that’s what the criticism was really about. Is opera something to do after book and film sales plateau, or is it an art that can lead?

We are firm believers in the latter. To prove it, we look at six new operas premiering in the 2015–2016 season that are taking the art in new directions (thanks to Fred PlotkinMichael Mori, and Joel Ivany for their tips). What kind of opera would you commission? Let us know in the comments below.

1. Great Scott, San Diego–Dallas Opera

A new opera from Jake Heggie and Terrance McNally, the creators of Dead Man Walking(first a book and a film), this San Diego–Dallas Opera co-production is about an "important American city" with a dying opera company and a star football team. The Scott of the title, Arden, is an international singing star who returns home to try and save the company that gave her a start. Her strategy? Stage a forgotten 19th-century work on the same night as the Super Bowl. It could just be a convoluted excuse to write bel canto in 2015, but the cast does include Joyce DiDonato and Frederica von Stade.

2. The Shining, Minnesota Opera

Paul Moravec and Paul Cambell’s The Shining is a Minnesota Opera commission that will premiere in September 2016. It is based on Stephen King’s book, but you probably know the title from Stanley Kubrick’s film about a family that moves into an enormous and sinister hotel. Brian Mulligan will sing Jack Torrance and, presumably, swing an axe.

3. Lilies (Les Feluettes), Opera de Montreal

Despite the grandmother-friendly title, this opera by Kevin March and Michel Marc Bouchard is about prisoners who perform a play, Hamlet-style, to force a confession out of an old bishop in rural Quebec. The co-production with Pacific Opera Victoria will feature Etienne Dupuis and Jean-Michel Richer.

4. Tap:EX – Metallurgy, Tapestry Opera

Tapestry Opera continues its tradition of fringe-style experiments with Tap:EX – Metallurgy, which premieres in November in Toronto. The opera combines singers and heavy metal rockers, because both of them like really loud sounds. Bonus points for being one of two productions on this list not based on an existing work.

5. Bel Canto, Lyric Opera Chicago

Lyric Opera Chicago premieres Jimmy López and Nilo Cruz’s Bel Canto in December. It’s about a hostage-taking during an opera recital at the vice president’s mansion in Peru, which turns into a months-long ordeal — a portrait of society under pressure. By contemporary opera standards, it is extremely well plotted, as it's based on Ann Patchett’s bestseller of the same name. Danielle de Niese sings and Andrew Davis conducts.

6. An American Dream, Seattle Opera

In fewer than two weeks, Seattle Opera premieres Jack Perla and Jessica Murphy Moo’s An American Dream, a commission that comes from the opera company’s exciting Belonging(s) Project: to tell a story that "comes not from myth, or fiction, or current events, but from the opera company’s community." This opera is based on the lives of two Seattle women, one Japanese and the other German, during the Second World War. D’Ana Lombard and Hae Ji Chang make their debuts with the company.