- Funding “Opera for the 80s and Beyond”: The Role of Impresarios in Creating a New American Repertoire
On a hot June day during the 1982 Miami New World Arts Festival, two arts executives met for lunch to discuss the fate of American opera. “Why doesn’t Rockefeller fund opera?” asked Martin Kagan, executive director of OPERA America, a service organization for opera professionals. Howard Klein, who was the arts director for the Rockefeller Foundation, answered, “Because opera has turned its back on the composer. . . . Most American opera companies are about stars performing a limited repertory of established works, not in [sic] contributing to the development of a living art form.”1 Kagan’s question was rhetorical; he agreed with Klein that opera, as manifest in the major opera houses of the United States, was a moribund tradition. They expressed concern over the scarcity of new American operas and the stagnation of the standard European repertoire. But Kagan and Klein had a solution, one they thought would be palatable to the Rockefeller Foundation: to revitalize modern opera, someone would need to tap into the world of avant-garde music theater, a domain to that point most successfully exploited by the collaborative efforts of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson in Einstein on the Beach (1976).
The exchange between Kagan and Klein is representative of discussions taking place at a number of funding organizations in the early 1980s: the [End Page 7] National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Rockefeller Foundation, and OPERA America, to name the most prominent. Executives at such organizations, a confluence of risk-taking impresarios and philanthropic administrators, changed the American operatic landscape by allocating an unprecedented amount of funding to new music-theater collaborations. Their efforts coalesced into two initiatives: OPERA America’s “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Next Wave Festival. And yet, for all their efforts, particularly in promoting Philip Glass, they have been almost entirely ignored by scholars of twentieth-century opera.2
Histories of American opera have not fully accounted for the sea change in operatic funding priorities that occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s. Leon Botstein and Richard Taruskin mention Glass when they note the sudden flourishing of American opera during this time period, but they offer little explanation of the phenomenon.3 Other musicologists have examined the aesthetics, stylistic features, and collaborative nature of postminimalist opera.4 Robert Fink, for example, considers whether minimalism has reinvigorated American opera through works by Glass and John Adams, but he provides no institutional history to go along with his critique.5 In his 1987 autobiography, Glass himself recounts his operatic activity during this time period, including his first real opera commissions from companies in the Netherlands and Germany, but he too offers less detail about his American productions.6 The present study expands on these sources by using archives housed at BAM and Houston Grand Opera (HGO), together with interviews conducted with directors, funding agency personnel, and impresarios, to demonstrate the central role that institutional support played in shaping late twentieth-century American opera.
This article focuses on two influential impresarios who differed in their approaches to the perceived crisis of American opera: Harvey Lichtenstein, executive producer at BAM, and David Gockley, general director at HGO. Both men shaped funding decisions at their respective institutions, and as impresarios with established records of advocating a broader conception of American opera, they were frequently invited to participate in OPERA America meetings. They believed Glass’s synthesis of avant-garde and popular-music traditions attracted younger audiences and led to sold-out performances. Lichtenstein promoted all ranges of avant-garde music theater, including Einstein on the Beach, as well as more conventionally scored operas. Gockley, on the other hand, was interested in how Glass’s aesthetic could be adapted to conventional forces in the opera house and exist alongside revivals of more accessible musical theater. Paradoxically, Glass fit into both of these visions of what “new music theater” should be: unabashedly avant-garde or potentially populist. As Lichtenstein and Gockley found Glass’s music amenable to [End Page 8] their contrasting aesthetic agendas, other U.S...