- Are "Works" Enough?
The following thoughts were spurred by the question, "Are 'works' enough anymore?"
Opera Philadelphia ran "O17" over twelve days in September 2017—the kick-off to a new annual festival. My interest in Philadelphia's "O17" here was instigated by the striking accolades Opera Philadelphia has received in recent years, including: "A leader in commissioning new works that push the boundaries of the quintessential classical art form" (said The Huffington Post); "One of America's most innovative opera companies" (à la New York's classical radio station WQXR); and "The very model of a modern opera company" (according to The Washington Post).1 The coup de grâce was Opera Philadelphia's nomination as Best Opera Company for Opera magazine's 2016 International Opera Awards; never an international center for opera (although having a rich operatic history), Philadelphia rubbed shoulders in the best company category with the Deutsche Oper, Dutch National Opera, Polish National Opera, Theater an der Wien, and the Welsh National Opera. (The Dutch won.)
Rather than test the validity of such kudos, I want to use Opera Philadelphia's "O17" as a brief case study for aspirational operatic values: of what opera is thought to be—what it is thought that opera should be—in the twenty-first century, and that will hopefully raise issues pertinent to our discussion. The "O" in "O17" obviously stands for "opera," but "O" has an intended double meaning, the excitement of which is embedded in the festival's slogan: "Opera is Now Open Wow." "O" also stands for "ontology," which, while not broached explicitly in the "O17" materials, is implied by the enterprise.
Why "Now Open," asserting that we have arrived in a new era, opera's longedfor, uncertain future? ("Wow"!) Opera history is full of openness—of "impermanence [that] held few terrors," as Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker put it2—even, arguably, during the museum age of the past century plus, which saw the rise and persistence of Regieoper. In a sense, I would argue, Regieoper is rooted in the status quo: directors require "works" on which to create, like a tailor requires a dress form. At the same time, for auteur directors, "works" are in a sense "too much"—too much of their original authors, too much of the past, too much aura. "Works" need to be opened up, sometimes exploded, from the inside-out for fresh experiences and meanings. But twenty-first-century endeavors such as Opera Philadelphia's [End Page 135] "O17" treat "works" as "not enough"—perhaps a glimpse of post-Regieoper. Consider the opening stanza of the poem "Open" in the "O17" festival brochure: "Open to new ideas. / To possibility. / To witnessing the unimagined." These ideals relate to one ontologically loaded refrain in some circles of contemporary opera culture: innovation is dependent on new works. And indeed "O17" has them: the world premiere of Kevin Puts's "whodunit" chamber opera Elizabeth Cree; another world premiere, Daniel Roumain's Philly Zeitoper, We Shall Not Be Moved; War Stories, this company's premiere of a double-bill mash-up of Monteverdi's 1624 scena Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and Lembit Beecher's digitally enhanced I Have No Stories to Tell; and yet another world premiere, David Hertzberg's The Wake World, after Aleister Crowley. It seems fitting that The Magic Flute is the sole canonic work on the "O17" festival program: Mozart's opera is a sui generis parable of initiation and enlightenment, although not canonically deployed by the group 1927 and Barrie Kosky (who does not regard Magic Flute as an opera anyway).3
The "Open" poem further illuminates the choice of these new works and, more importantly, the aimed-for experience of them—why "works" themselves are "not enough" anymore: "Open to one another. / To humankind. / To the catharsis that comes / with laughing or crying next / to someone IRL [in real life]. / Open to a city. / To its every gift. / To that which sits beyond Broad." "Beyond Broad": Broad Street is the major north-south artery running through Philadelphia's Center City and the home of some of its most prestigious cultural institutions, including the Philadelphia...