Bumper Cars
The Steiny Road
to Operadom with
Karren LaLonde Alenier

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12Commissions are a big cause of concern on the Steiny Road to Operadom and for anyone with enough chutzpah or blissful innocence to undertake an opera project.

Usually what comes with a commission is an agreement from the commissioning organization to pay a composer, and sometimes a librettist, a particular sum of money that is often used by the creating artist(s) as expense money for the duration of time that it takes to finish the work.  

Commissions are not royalty payments for the finished work nor are they suppose to be a payment for ownership (copyright) of the finished work. Commission can be legal documents or oral agreements. Money can be paid at all at once in a lump sum or paid based on a delivery schedule of work products, such as (1) the piano and voice score and (2) the orchestration score. Some of the organizations in the United States that typically provide commissions for operas include opera theater companies, arts groups including Opera America, and universities.


Money and community interest in an opera project is the short answer about the importance of an opera commission. Although many composers and librettists develop operas without a commission from an interested organization, the chance that a professional opera company will produce a non-commissioned work is slim to none. Part of the problem is that a theater needs to feel invested in such a costly undertaking. Getting in on the ground floor during the development of an opera is where this investment by the theater group begins.

To understand the difficulty in getting a commission, one needs to realize how enormously hard it is to get an opera premiered. Production cost; preparation time for directors, singers, and musicians; set design and construction; lighting design and execution, costume design and creation; and publicity and marketing advance work are just part of the enormous set of factors that need to be addressed to put a new opera on stage.


When Virgil Thomson suggested that Gertrude Stein collaborate with him on an opera, he had neither patron nor commission in hand. Not only did he have to convince Stein that collaborating with him would be worth her time, but he also had to persuade everyone whose help he needed to produce Four Saints in Three Acts. What Thomson accomplished, including a 60 consecutive performance run on Broadway, is miraculous and unparalleled. The story is told in detail in Steven Watson's book Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism.

Thomson's second and final collaboration with Stein (The Mother of Us All ) came about because he was offered a small commission from the Alice M. Ditson Fund, which is administered at Columbia University. Although the Ditson fund supported operas by Gian Carlos Menotti and Benjamin Britten, it has not granted funds for operas since the 1950s. For Thomson in the middle 1940s, the Ditson grant brought with it a university stage and music community support without any lobbying efforts required by Thomson. The only person he had to convince was Gertrude Stein who fussed about her cut of the commission, but once that issue was resolved, she quickly produced the libretto that revolves around the American voting rights activist Susan B. Anthony. In spite of the fact that the first production of The Mother of Us All did not enjoy the Broadway success of Four Saints in Three Acts, over the long term Mother has seen many more productions than Four Saints.


One of the hurdles in getting Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On launched was finding a strategy for getting a commission. Initially the Steiny Road Poet and her first collaborating composer Jeffrey Mumford focused on big opera companies like the Houston Grand Opera and the San Francisco Opera. Since 1974, Houston has presented 28 world premieres including Cold Sassy Tree, Carlisle Floyd, 2000; Little Women, Mark Adamo, 1998; Jackie O, Michael Daugherty and Wayne Koestenbaum, 1997; Harvey Milk, Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie, 1995; and Nixon in China, John Adams and Alice Goodman, 1987. Although not as prolific with world premieres as Houston, the San Francisco Opera has commissioned new works such as the jazz-influenced A Street Car Named Desire by composer Andre Previn and librettist Philip Littell. So it seemed to the Steiny Road poet that an opera about Gertrude Stein, who grew up in Oakland, would be a good fit for the SFO. But how would two artists who had no opera experience get a commission from a large opera company? Neither of us had a clue, so after a year of discussing the project, we both agreed to move on to other projects.

This turned out to be a good decision because William Banfield had some opera experience and realistically suggested pitching the Stein opera to small opera companies. It was easy to find interest in the subject matter, but certainly much harder to get a commission. It took two years to develop a relationship with Nancy Rhodes of Encompass New Opera Theatre and to figure out a creative solution to make a commission happen. The result was a co-commission between The Word Works, a nonprofit literary organization that had first published the Steiny Road poet, and Encompass New Opera Theatre. The Word Works assumed financial responsibility for developing the opera and providing commission money for composer Bill Banfield while Encompass, at its own expense, guided the creative development.


Opera America currently has 117 United States opera companies in its membership. This membership represents all of the major opera companies and most of the small companies in the U.S. In the current season (May 1, 2003 to August 31, 2004) according to a report prepared by Opera America, there were or will be 11 world premieres of operas by U.S. companies. Their list, although not comprehensive, is instructive to the process of understanding what makes up new opera commissions and productions. One should also note that the current season shows a marked increase in new works by U.S. opera companies over the last two years despite the 9/11 disaster that took funds away from the arts. The Opera America list includes:

America Opera Projects (NYC), Marina: A Captive Spirit with music by Deborah Drattell and words by Annie Finch

Central City Opera (near Denver), Gabriel's Daughter with music by Henry Mollicone and words by William Luce

Cleveland Opera, Come to Me in Dreams with songs by Lori Laitman as adapted by David Bamberger

Houston Grand Opera

--The End of the Affair with music by Jake Heggie and words by Heather McDonald based on the novel by Graham Greene

--The Little Prince with music by Rachel Portman and English words by Nicholas Wright based on the children's story by Antoine de St. Exupéry

Los Angeles Opera, Nicholas and Alexandra with music by Deborah Drattell and words by Nicholas von Hoffman

Boston Academy of Music and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project: Opera Unlimited

--The Cask of Amontillado with music and words by Daniel Pinkham

--Toussaint Before the Spirits with music by Elena Ruehr and words by Elizabeth Spires based on a novel by Madison Smartt Bell

Opera Omaha, Bloodlines by composer Deborah Fischer Teason with South High students

Sante Fe Opera, Madame Mao with music by Bright Sheng and words by Olin Graham

Sarasota Opera, The Language of Birds with music by John W. Kennedy and English words by Peter M. Krask based on a Russian folktale

In this list of 11 world premieres of operas by eight U.S. opera companies and one collaboration between two music organizations, four of these operas are specialized. Two—The Language of Birds and The Little Prince—are children's operas and one— Bloodlines —is an outreach project to a young audience and also included high school students in the creation of the work. Come to Me in Dreams is a set of songs by Washington, DC composer Lori Laitman but adapted by the founder of the Cleveland Opera who also serves as the stage manager. Come to Me in Dreams, part of the 75th anniversary tribute of Anne Frank's birth, is a companion piece to Encompass New Opera Theatre's production of The Diary of Anne Frank by composer Grigori Frid.

Two of the remaining seven operas—Nicholas and Alexandra and Marina: A Captive Spirit—were composed by the prolific Deborah Drattell who has written five operas of varying lengths in conjunction with such organizations and luminaries as Glimmerglass and playwright Wendy Wasserstein. The two opera companies producing Ms. Drattell's works in the 2003-2004 season represent polar opposites. Nicholas and Alexandra at the Los Angeles Opera included Placido Domingo as Rasputin, a part that Drattell had to rewrite for him when the original singer died suddenly. (Domingo is the general director at the Los Angeles Opera as well as the artistic director at the Washington National Opera.) On the other hand, the America Opera Projects strictly caters to new works and Marina: A Captive Spirit is the first act of Drattell's three-part trilogy.

Of the remaining five world premieres, two—The End of the Affair and Gabriel's Daughter—are by composers with proven opera track records. The End of the Affair is Jake Heggie's second opera. His first was the acclaimed Dead Man Walking written with playwright Terrence McNally and commissioned by the San Francisco Opera. Many productions of Dead Man have aired since its world premiere in 2000. Henry Mollicone's one-act opera The Face on the Barroom Floor is one of the most produced contemporary operas. Like Gabriel's Daughter, The Face on the Barroom Floor was also commissioned by Central City Opera of Colorado.

The last three operas in this list—Daniel Pinkham's The Cask of Amontillado, Elena Ruehr'sToussaint Before the Spirits, and Bright Sheng's Madame Mao—each are by distinguished composers who have not previously been known for their work in opera. Pinkham who studied with Arthur Honegger, Samuel Barber, and Nadia Boulanger is known for his choral work. Ruehr's work has been commissioned and presented by such international groups as the Borromeo and Shanghai String Quartets as well as the Naumburg-winning baritone Stephen Salters. Sheng, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, is known for his cross-cultural music.


It's also interesting to look at past histories for commissioned and world premieres by these eight companies. Three of these companies are consistently offering new work: America Opera Projects (AOP), Houston Grand Opera, and the Sante Fe Opera. As stated, it is AOP's mission to present and develop new operas, and Houston, since 1974, has the most active plan for commissioning and premiering new works in the U.S.  Since 1958, the Sante Fe Opera has commissioned eight works and presented two world premieres.

Central City, Cleveland, and Los Angeles opera companies have each commissioned several operas. Central City Opera's list includes the popular Ballad of Baby Doe. Cleveland Opera's list includes two children's operas (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Enchanted Garden) as well as the rock opera Holy Blood and the Crescent Moon by the rock drummer Stewart Copeland. Los Angeles Opera's list includes two well-received operas Kullervo (by a Finnish composer) and the family audience opera Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Besides the current season offering, Opera Omaha commissioned Libby Larsen's Eric Hermannson's Soul in 1998. Only Sarasota Opera is the newcomer in this list by Opera America.

Finding a comprehensive list of American operas that have made their world premieres in the last five to ten years is a challenge. For example, Opera America's list that appears above does not include two operas that premiered in May 2004 in the Washington, DC area (where Opera America is based): Clara by composer Robert Convery and librettist Kathleen Cahill which was commissioned by the University of Maryland and Volpone by composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell, which was premiered by the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. Also Opera Theater of Pittsburgh is premiering in June Just Above My Head by Nathan Davis and this jazz opera is being promoted on the website related to Opera America's annual conference which is taking place in Pittsburgh.  

Some of the new opera works by Americans under development for world premieres in the next few years by U.S. companies include commissions by The Metropolitan Opera—An American Tragedy by Tobias Picker, Washington National Opera—Democracy by Scott Wheeler, San Francisco Opera—Doctor Atomic by John Adams, Music Theatre Group—Fangs by composer Deirdre Murray and poet Cornelius Eady, Houston Grand Opera—Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess by Mark Adamo, and co-commissioners: Michigan Opera Theatre, the Philadelphia Opera and the Cincinnati Opera—Margaret Garner by composer Richard Danielpour and novelist Toni Morrison, Center for Contemporary Opera— A More Perfect Union a chamber dance opera as conceived by choreographer Ruth Priscilla Kirstein with composer Victoria Bond and librettist Isaiah Sheffer, American Opera Projects—The Summer King by composer Daniel Sonenberg and librettist Daniel Nestor, Encompass New Opera Theatre—Tesla by composer Carson Kievman and the late librettist Thomas Babe.

The Steiny Road poet will go out on a limb now and say that although most of the U.S. opera companies have never commissioned a new work, new works are becoming more vital to opera companies that are trying to cultivate younger audience members. So the Steiny Road poet predicts many more opera commissions will be granted in the next five to ten years.


©2004 Karren LaLonde Alenier

For prior installments, click here

Karren LaLonde Alenier, an award-winning Lindy Hopper,
is the author of five collections of poetry,
including Looking for Divine Transportation,
winner of the 2002 Towson University Prize for Literature.
Much more at
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