- The Voice of American Opera
American opera—so the public-relations machine would have it—is thriving. American composers are turning out new works at a prodigious rate. And there are more opera companies than ever before to produce them.
But the definition of "American opera" remains vague at best. Does it mean new works by American composers, on American subjects; or is it understood as a general term for the business of producing and supporting opera in this country? Furthermore, it is difficult to credibly apply the adjective "thriving" to a field that appears to be struggling on the margins of a culture that has little interest in it.
American opera, healthy or not, has been struggling to figure out its identity for much of its existence: at least, let's say, since 1910, when the Metropolitan Opera, America's leading house, offered the world premiere of what many would call an American opera, Puccini's Wild West extravaganza La fanciulla del West. (The "all-American" cast included Enrico Caruso, Emmy Destinn, and Pasquale Amato, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.) The Met did go on to stage a new work nearly every year for the next decade, some by American composers (Shanewis, by Charles Wakefield Cadman); most of them are forgotten.
But there is no question about one element of American opera's identity: the American opera singer. Particularly in the years since World War II, the American singer has been American opera's most recognizable export. Renowned for their good vocal training, flexibility, stage presence, and chameleon-like adaptability, American singers were already playing a prominent role on European stages at a time when the prevailing attitude at American houses like the Met appeared to be, in the words of the American soprano Beverly Sills, "If your name was pronounceable, how could you be a good opera singer?"1 But at the New York City Opera at home, and at houses of all sizes abroad, particularly in the opera-producing machine of Germany, American singers established themselves as a vocal force to be reckoned with.
One result of this is that American opera singers have effectively set the agenda for the less self-assured quantity of American opera for a number of decades. Opera always tends to reflect the voices of its day, although there is a [End Page 81] chicken-and-egg imponderability to the question of which comes first, the voice or the opera that fits it. (On the one hand, Handel tailored roles to the exact measure of his singers; on the other, Verdi and Wagner basically created new vocal types—the Verdi mezzo, the Wagnerian soprano—to which singers still try to conform today.) Still, the vocal ideals of a particular period always play a role in understanding the opera written in that period.
It is striking that in the 1960s, when the concept of the American opera singer was coming into its own, American opera appeared to be, as well. In the late fifties and early sixties, City Opera, a company built around young, primarily American singers, staged five entire seasons of new American and/or twentieth-century operas: works by Thomas Pasatieri, Carlisle Floyd, Douglas Moore, Robert Ward, and others.
Recent research, however, suggests that American opera singers are not what they once were. American vocal training appears, on the evidence of dozens of interviews gathered around the country in 2005, to be in a kind of crisis. And the way that American singers and American vocal training have evolved, or devolved, is reflected to no small extent in the current state of American opera.
Examine, again, the term "American opera" and you will find an oxymoron. Opera isn't American at all—a foreign import, it has sought its identity in this country on whatever terms it can cobble together. The elements that make it "American" are so various as to be meaningless in aggregate: "American" might indicate the nationality or predilections of the stage director (Peter Sellars setting Così fan tutte in a fifties-era diner), the nationality of the composer (John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, based in eighteenth-century France), the choice of an American...