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What Is Opera, Anyway?

Monday, September 22, 2008 - 01:56 PM

Another season at the Met opens this week, and the somewhat traditional opener (Renee Fleming’s voice on display in three acts from three different operas) belies the fact that opera is actually opening up to more contemporary ideas. Peter Gelb at the Met and the incoming Gerard Mortier at the NY City Opera are hellbent on dragging opera into the 21st century, with new works, new productions of old works, and canny use of the media. Looking beyond New York, John Adams’ work “Doctor Atomic” is the latest in a series of operas (along with “Nixon In China” and “The Death Of Klinghoffer”) that some critics are called “Docu-operas,” because they’re taken from real-life characters from recent history. Stewart Wallace has gotten rave reviews for his collaboration with novelist Amy Tan on “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” in part because of the successful fusion of Western orchestral and Chinese classical instruments in his score. And Steve Reich’s operas like “The Cave” and “Three Tales” use the media – film, computer animation, and the like – in place of live characters and traditional sets.

All of this stretches the definition of opera to the point where people are understandably asking “IS it opera?” But we are such a visual and such a globalized culture now that multimedia or multicultural aspects shouldn’t seem so outlandish. I guess, in the end, if the composer says it’s opera, it’s opera. The real question is, who is it for? Can opera move ahead without leaving behind the operaphiles who’ve kept the art form alive? Or is opera transitioning now into some new and exciting form that you’re watching with anticipation? Let us know what you think the state of opera early in the 21st century is … leave a comment.

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