Exploring the “wild west” of opera

Arts / Article

By Patrick Dewane, Minnesota Opera

At the national Opera America Conference in Boston in early May, I moderated a panel titled “Capitalizing on Digital Transmission Technology.” More than one panelist referred to the digital transmission of opera as “The Wild West.” For a gunslinger, The Wild West might sound like fun. But for a shopkeeper, it can be downright frightening. So how might the shop keepers of the opera industry participate in the riches out on the digital frontier? Well, that’s exactly what our panel discussed.

At Minnesota Opera, we focus our digital distribution on new and contemporary works, long a strength of the company. Bigger opera companies worldwide have already staked claim to the standard repertoire of opera, so we’re going after different territory, like Bernard Herrmann’s Wuthering Heights, a “lost” contemporary American opera that the Knight Foundation helped us record in HD. And here’s our big idea behind the importance of new works—they speak to contemporary audiences. Italian audiences of the 19th century clamored for the next Verdi opera, or the latest work by Puccini.

So why can’t that happen in the United States? Frankly, it already is happening. The sold out performances in Detroit and Philadelphia of the new opera Margaret Garner and our standing-room-only crowds for our world premiere of The Grapes of Wrath are proof that audiences are starved for great new opera. We want as many people as possible to see our new works and we are using the latest in digital technology to fulfill this goal. Our even bigger idea is that other companies will join us in the broad digital distribution of American contemporary opera. American opera—just like American painting, architecture, film, dance and literature—need not be primarily focused on European masterpieces. This is the claim we’re staking in The Wild West of HD opera.