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  • “My Answer to What Music Theatre Can Be”: Iconoclasm and Entrepreneurship in Steve Reich and Beryl Korot’s The Cave
  • Ryan Ebright (bio)

In August 1980 composer Steve Reich penned a letter to Betty Freeman, his longtime patron. In it he revealed his plans for a massive project that would be his “answer to what music theatre can be.”1 Reich’s maverick streak ran deep. Despite overtures in the 1980s from the Holland Festival and Frankfurt Opera, he expressed no desire to write a “conventional opera,” citing misgivings about “the form itself.”2 From the outset of his theater piece, Reich intended to decouple opera from its conventions and bring the genre into the present. In the same letter, he estimated that it would be ready in four years, by 1984.

Reich was off by a factor of three. Altogether it would be thirteen years—1993—before his initial idea finally came to fruition when The Cave, a so-called documentary music video theater work, premiered at the Wiener Festwochen. Synchronizing live performance with multichannel video and digital speech samples, The Cave departed from operatic tradition in myriad ways. Ever the iconoclast, Reich teamed with video artist Beryl Korot to create what he described emphatically in 1988 as “a music theater that has nothing to do with opera,” one that was “totally different and totally opposed to operatic directions.”3 Yet The Cave was composed specifically in response to the operatic tradition. It represented [End Page 29] what Reich and Korot thought opera could—indeed, should—be in an increasingly mediatized and technological age. Iconoclasm comes at a price, though, as the thirteen-year development of The Cave suggests.

In order to protect the artistic autonomy they considered essential, Korot and Reich, who are married, ultimately chose to produce The Cave themselves. In a 1989 grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), they rationalized their decision to self-produce, writing that “the unusual nature of the piece demands it.”4 With a total cost in excess of $1 million by the time of the premiere, The Cave became one of the most expensive independently produced American operas of the late twentieth century, and one of the most unorthodox.

The Cave therefore serves as a case study in funding iconoclastic art. I argue that, by the late twentieth century in the United States, entrepreneurship increasingly became a prerequisite for operatic experimentation. Taking my cue from Reich’s stated rationale for self-production, I trace the paths that connect aesthetics—expressed in terms of genre—with the more quotidian social realities of operatic development and production. Drawing on archival documents housed at the Paul Sacher Stiftung, Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and University of California at San Diego, along with interviews I conducted with Reich, Korot, producer Renée Levine Packer, and others involved in the opera’s creation, I map out Korot and Reich’s entrepreneurial strategies. The results of doing so are manifold.

First, reconstructing the production history of The Cave provides an illuminating window into the evolving state of opera in the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when an upsurge of financial support for interdisciplinary ventures coincided with forays into opera by avant-garde composers and directors such as John Adams, Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson, Tod Machover, and Philip Glass.5 Entry into the field remained challenging, however. Most new operas were created under the auspices of a major house, with the full resources and support that entails, including publicity and marketing departments, donor development and administrative staff, and costume and set construction teams. Even with these advantages, beginning in the mid-1980s, opera companies increasingly adopted a production model that relied on networks of international cocommissioners to share the financial burden and maximize exposure for new works.6 In 1986 Adams’s Nixon in China saw the Houston Grand Opera, Kennedy Center, and BAM join forces, and shortly thereafter Glass’s The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 was cocommissioned and produced by an international consortium that included the Houston Grand Opera, English National Opera, Het Muziektheater of Amsterdam, and Kiel Opera. Self-produced opera, then, was the exception...


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