The Battle to Make Opera Cool: Meet the Bright Young Things of New York City’s Opera Renaissance

A generation of performers disillusioned by Broadway musicals gambles their careers on making opera cool again in the Big Apple.

AF archive/Alamy

When Michael Marcotte did the best show of his life his friends hated it. When Kamala Sankaram wanted to be a composer her parents made her do a practical masters degree. When Beth Morrison realized she'd rather produce opera than sing in it, she found nobody wanted to work by her revolutionary new model. They are just three of the bright young things of the opera renaissance in New York City: a generation of performers disillusioned by Broadway musicals, gambling their careers on producing contemporary opera.

Making opera accessible, comforting, and modern is a tough challenge, but one being taken on with aplomb by the talents currently on display. It’s a transformation that’s been many years in the making; not just because of programs and institutions, but because at long last artists are finding a place to express their dissatisfaction with Broadway shows so obsessed with recouping the huge financial investment required to stage them. Opera is becoming the place to explore if it can shed its stuffy image, not helped by the fact that the “standard repertoire” doesn’t include any works past 1924.

The South Asian Sondheim

“I think that a lot of people are afraid of opera because they don’t know what it is,” says Sankaram when I meet her for coffee. “It’s kind of like church in a way, the way that it’s turned out, it can be very intimidating if you’ve never done it before and you don’t know when you’re supposed to stand up, when to sit down, when to kneel.”

When we first met she was playing accordion in the ensemble for a new operatic work Mata Hari. It was in a double bill workshop performance for Culturemart 2014 at HERE in SoHo (a version of the show will be performing there this year as well) and it was rehearsing in a brownstone a few minute’s walk from the place Anna Nicole, and New York City Opera, did its final run. Sankaram seemed like another musician brought in for the project, but she was quickly outed as the composer and performer of one of the year’s most unusual operatic productions.

Thumbprint was the opera of the gang rape of Mukhtar Mai and subsequent search for justice. It mixed Western classical music with the stylings of Hindustani and Raga music. It was, in almost every way, a lot to take in. Especially for critics. “A lot of the reviewers who came didn’t know anything about Hindustani music and you could tell by the way they wrote about it, because Hindustani music is about melodic and rhythmic development not necessarily harmony,” explains Sankaram, with her perennial smile.

Originally obsessed with Sondheim at school, she started dabbling with composition. “I wrote a very bad musical with a friend that never got performed, fortunately,” she says. Eventually she made her way to New York to audition for Broadway shows and study composition. When she graduated, however, Broadway wasn’t doing it for her and her parents told her to do a postgraduate degree with legs. She chose psychology. Never willing to be dissuaded from her dream, Sankaram kept writing music, but the only venues that were available to her were rock clubs. Thus she turned to pop songs with her own twist.

She has a band called Bombay Rickey, whose style she describes as “a combination of operatic singing with kumbayah surf music and spaghetti western influences,” and her different way of singing was always noticed by audiences. “It’s the same exact kind of singing that I do when I’m doing a piece of classical music but people can’t identify what it is because they don’t know what classical singing is like,” she says. “So I have people coming up to me and asking if I had voice lessons. Yes, this is operatic singing!”

Operatic singing has become so mythologized that people no longer even know what it consists of, which Sankaram noticed when Renee Fleming sang the national anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl. “I remember someone asking if she was going to sing too long,” she giggles. “If they knew anything about the classical voice or knew anything about her they’d know that this was cake for her. She’s got two octaves above the highest note in that or something ridiculous like that.”

Eventually Sankaram was selected as a resident artist at HERE, the arts center in SoHo that first staged The Vagina Monologues and some of Basil Twist’s award-winning work. The end of her time at the venue produced her first opera Miranda, which she dubbed a “steampunk-opera.”

Although Miranda’s dark humor was a huge selling point, Sankaram’s second piece, Thumbprint, was far from comedic. “Most of us don’t have the experience with that kind of sexual violence and so it’s going to remain removed to some extent even if the actor is really, really good. If you have something musical then we can still hear the music and it will make us feel something and that can put us more into the same emotional state as that person,” she explains. “So it’s like removing a wall between you and that person’s experience.” After developing a song cycle for the multimedia production company Vision Into Art on the subject of Mukhtar Mai, she collaborated with opera producer Beth Morrison to develop it into a full opera. Thumbprint was staged, at long last, at PROTOTYPE in January 2014.

Thumbprint was given the title of an opera, a decision Sankaram regrets now. Critics, she thinks, missed something of her inspiration. The answer she thinks might have been to call Thumbprint a Hindustani-opera, but the constant use of operatic prefixes and suffixes seems to be leading to confusion as to what opera really is. Lee Breuer recently staged the last piece of the Shaggy Dog trilogy at La Mama, La Divina Caricatura, which he called a “puppet-opera.” The form is not new—his puppetry director Jessica Scott has worked in multiple puppet-operas—but to her and other members of the team the phrase “opera” was not applicable to the primarily sung-through bunraku show.

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“It’s a very equal combination of live music, puppetry, and spectacle. But not an opera,” says Scott. “That word carries too much specific form, and there’s so much spoken text that is lyrical, but aren’t lyrics themselves.”

Opera has always been a contested term for some shows. Mozart called The Magic Flute a “Zingspiele,” for example, or what might seem like an opera might technically be an operetta, or an oratorio. The difficulty of the word “opera” to so many makes for a unique marketing challenge: is it an attraction, or a distraction?

The Producer Who Fell Into Opera

PROTOTYPE, now in its second year, is a festival of proudly operatic work gathering a huge following. Like Sankaram, PROTOTYPE was cultivated by the people at HERE along with Beth Morrison’s vision of new operatic production.

Kim Whitener has accidentally found herself a producer of opera even though she had very little experience of it as a child. Like Sankaram, Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass’s revolutionary opera Einstein on the Beach was the moment the form became relevant to her, and she later became general manager of Boston Music Theatre Project. From there she was The Wooster Group’s Managing Director before coming to HERE. She gives off an aura of being a warm matriarch for new operatic talent and the other resident artists: she insists we take the comfy seats in HERE’s cafe and tells me my coat doesn’t look warm enough for the New York winter.

PROTOTYPE’s genesis came about when Whitener and HERE teamed up with producer Beth Morrison, and they all found their experience as opera producers pointed them towards one thing. “We really thought there was a need for this festival to showcase the work of 21st century composers,” she says. HERE has been working in opera theatre productions for a while as part of their focus on multidisciplinary work. But Morrison, a far more monocultural impressaria, felt the time had come to showcase the new composers and talents cropping up across the city in a festival.

In the wake of PROTOTYPE, a new group called the New York Opera Alliance has emerged, of which HERE is a member. With opera getting increased press, 34 of the smaller companies in New York have formed a group to help work together as a consortium and an advocate of each other’s work. This is an entity unique to New York. “In New York we have something like 300 dance companies and 500 theatre companies and there’s probably no other city that has that many, so by extension we’ve got this many small opera companies,” Whitener says.

Whitener has noticed the blossoming of new opera works all across America, and across the world. This year’s festival contained an opera from Lithuania about supermarket workers called Have a Good Day. While Europe is still turning out interesting and unusual content, South America and Asia are also on HERE’s radar. “With Asia and Korea and Japan there’s this whole style of performance that’s just very, very different that’s coming out of the old forms of Asian theatrical language, and when you meld that with different cultural traditions it’s very different in tone and in scope,” she says.

It’s all part of a change in musical styles that mean Kamala Sankaram might be in better company. Phillip Glass may have been inspired by working with Ravi Shankar and Steve Reich may have been heavily influenced by South African music, but atonal and rhythmic classical styles are still seen as exotic. Even modern musical instruments seem controversial in opera: composer David T. Little’s decision to use vocal amplification and his unusual musical ensemble have been a radical change from traditional chamber orchestras. Lincoln Schleifer, a rock musician who played in an on-stage trio in Anna Nicole, has found that classical orchestras are not always supportive of modern instruments. “We had people walking from the orchestra pit to the conductor with decibel meters saying, ‘Its 86db, we'll be losing our hearing!’ I saw a violinist, a young guy walk out because it was too loud.”

There is a definite reluctance by the people funding opera companies to look into unusual work. After a disastrous couple of years when NYCO general manager Gérard Mortier cancelled the 2008-09 season and then attempted a season of exclusively 20th century operas, he was removed from the position. What followed was an attempt to make up for the financial losses with nonstandard repertory shows that failed to make the box office impact the company needed. In 2011 Mortier’s successor George Steel announced that their previous move to Lincoln Center was no longer financially viable. In 2013 even the trimmed down City Opera could no longer sustain itself financially and a last-ditch Kickstarter attempt failed to reach anywhere near enough money. City Opera had finally breathed its last breath.

If the cautionary tale of City Opera teaches us anything, it’s that without financial support new work can never thrive. That’s certainly what Sankaram believes. “I think that City Opera is not about the death of opera in the United States. It’s about the idea that opera needs to change and embrace new forms and that includes the people who are funding it. If they’re only gonna give money to the Met then they are the ones who are directly responsible for City Opera’s death.”

The Met’s Youngest Composer

Google Nico Muhly and you’ll see him smiling toothily, a downtown backdrop and messy hair. The 33-year-old has an Alex DeLarge energy in images like this, and he is flamboyant, hilarious, and passionate when we talk over the phone. It is hard to believe anybody in classical music with a trendier resume: he has worked with Phillip Glass, Grizzly Bear, and Bjork and will soon be appearing on David Byrne’s new album. He has written acclaimed composition after acclaimed composition including a musical adaptation of The Elements of Style at New York Public Library before securing a place on the Met’s New Works Program.

Although Muhly’s youth was suggested by some critics to be a clever marketing ploy on the part of the Met, his opera Two Boys—like much new opera on a grand scale— was hardly produced overnight. “You think there’s a man who told Peter Gelb to hire me seven years ago when I was a random homosexual on the street, you know?” he laughs, pointing out that the Met does not schedule its seasons on short enough notice to work like that. “They’re in 2121 right now with programs,” he says. “So much of what we’re even talking about is taking place in this blind little Panopticon space.”

In fact, the Met’s process takes so long that Rufus Wainwright, who was also offered a place on the New Works Program, refused to continue working with them when he was told 2014 was the latest it could be staged. He then went on to stage Prima Donna with City Opera in 2012.

When it comes to composing and writing new opera, Muhly is the exception, not the vanguard. Some of the biggest operas in America in recent years—Moby Dick for example, or Dead Man Walking—were produced in Dallas and San Francisco, respectively. “People who propagate New York is the best don’t live here and are a bit mad,” Muhly moans.

The Tenor Who Wanted To Be On Broadway

Randall Eng and Donna DiNovelli are two teachers on NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. They graduated from there a decade or so ago, and were given an amazing opportunity by New York City Opera. NYCO’s Vox program aimed to stage new works with company musicians and singers, and every year they included one relative unknown in the line-up. In 2002, that was Eng and DiNovelli with their graduate project, Florida. Originally shunned by Broadway producers, the show found a home in the opera community, and their career skyrocketed after this incredible showcase.

Their success is rare, so rare that the course makes no pretense of suggesting success is a sure thing by graduating from it. But it still gives budding composers some great opportunities to hone their craft. In one class, two singers are brought in by Randall to work with the writers. One is Kathryn Guthrie who previously performed in some of opera’s most unusual productions of the last decade. With her is Michael Marcotte, an unwitting tenor muse for some of opera’s greatest new writing talents.

“[Guthrie], who’s about my age and did Prima Donna at City Opera and some of the more fun roles Anna Nicole, Jerry Springer, that kind of stuff, she’s game for it but she’s very much of the ‘I’m game but I am the singer first’ whereas I’m not necessarily the singer first,” says Marcotte. “I think acting and intention are the most important and then the voice.” Like DiNovelli and Eng, Marcotte owes Vox for his big break: it was there he performed in David T. Little’s Vinkensport as a “coked out Eurotrash” Flemish finch trainer, which lead to him being cast in Little’s lauded opera Dog Days.

After Stephen Schwartz’s success writing Broadway musicals like Wicked, Godspell, Pippin, and the lyrics to several of Disney’s ‘90s classics like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he was desperate to write his first opera Seance on a Wet Afternoon. He cast Marcotte to play the role of an Irish tenor. It was staged in the room I first meet Marcotte several years later: a wood-paneled chamber with sliding doors and a marble staircase in a brownstone in Greenpoint. The slender building, home of American Opera Projects, was being used to rehearse for Mata Hari, where Kamala Sankaram was playing the accordion and Matt Marks was conducting the score he wrote from his iPad.

The bluegrass cabaret of the score, which required Marcotte to swerve from classical tenor to Thom Yorke on a sixpence, was nothing like any opera you would hear at the Met. One tango-esque number was described by Marks to his band “as if there was a waltzy cafe scene in a Mario Brothers game.”

Marks, like Little and like Schwartz, was drawn to Marcotte’s incredible voice, casting him in his opera Strip Mall after seeing him in Dog Days, and then asking him to fill in as Mata Hari’s lover Masloff when the original actor had to bow out. It is clear to see why Marcotte is adored as soon as he sings: a crisp, clear boom that he throws out like a boxer’s punch. Brogues balanced on the music stand, rocking in his seat like a beast about to pounce, Marcotte prepares for high notes with a hike of his socks and an infectious blast of optimism. He’s strong-jawed, stronger-chested, pristinely made up with perfect blonde hair and a killer smile.

For the guy who wanted to be on Broadway, a career in avant-garde opera theatre was a complete surprise. Even more surprising was how welcomed he was. “No one had ever given me a hard time saying you don’t really belong here. Stuffy opera singers? That’s just not the case. And they’re brilliant actors, they’re fit, they’re game for anything, they’re not park and bark…Wagnerians.”

Marcotte’s approach of seeking intention through singing rather than showing off a conservatoire-trained voice is becoming far more standard in operatic work. Muhly and Lucas’s Two Boys was, to Marcotte, almost play-like in its focus on story and character. “They’re not necessarily musically powerful performances but subtle, excellent acting, great storytelling, and beautiful visuals. And I thought to myself wow, they’ve learnt from their next door neighbor that had to go away.”

Although opera was willing to take in a musical theatre person, musical theatre has not always been so confident about the man who strayed. “It certainly hasn’t helped my casting, I’ll tell you that,” laughs Marcotte. “The casting directors on the more traditional side of Broadway have no problem with me veering into the more operatic world but for Telsey—who basically casts everything on Broadway from Once to Next to Normal to Spiderman—I’ve always sounded a little too classical, a little too trained. I wasn’t poppy enough, so me making more headlines doing these new artistic pieces doesn’t make them want to bring me even further into their realm.”

Opera has offered Marcotte the sort of bespoke parts that Broadway performers don’t get until much later in their career. Now, as a regular fixture of David T. Little’s work, he’s hoping he’ll be kept around for future productions.

Broadway audiences have always loved an operatic musical—whether it be Rent, Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd—but Marcotte still has yet to appear in a big Broadway show. He recently went in to audition for Enjolras in the new Les Miserables revival and lost out to a friend from the long-running London production. “I was bummed for a hot second but then I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I’m gonna be doing Mata Hari. Do I want to do something that has been tread upon 25 times before and I’ll do as good as has been done before or a little less better, or totally create a brand new thing?’”

The Classically Trained Singer Who Became Opera’s Biggest Producer

It took the hard work of producer Beth Morrison to give David T. Little the platform he needed. Morrison first heard of him when she was sent his song cycle “Soldier Songs.” She cried throughout the entire thing. Cut to the first PROTOTYPE and the work is being staged before an audience, and she helped to stage Dog Days, too.

After training, and then teaching, at Tanglewood Institute she enrolled at Yale University School of Drama where she found mentors in the field of production. It was then that the thespian from Auburn, Maine, moved to New York and began to network her ass off to get her way of thinking out there.

Morrison first appeared to me through the clapping hands of the audience at Have a Good Day, the final piece of PROTOTYPE’s second outing in 2014. On a Sunday afternoon the show was still a sell-out, completely packed with eager operagoers of different ages and backgrounds. The Lithuanian opera about supermarket workers was performed on bare white blocks with a constant underscoring of bleeping barcodes. Sweeping all-female harmonies and searing arias from each character filled the room, the Eastern-European lyrics and jokes explained by projections on the back wall of exposed brick.

Morrison stood between Kristin Marting and Kim Whitener announcing the return of PROTOTYPE next year to excitable cheers, and then disappeared with the cast into HERE’s cafe. Locked away behind the technicolor-stained glass they popped open champagne and spoke of how disappointingly un-snowy New York was looking that day.

Since the first PROTOTYPE festival at HERE in 2013, Morrison—along with Whitener and Marting—has worked flat out to keep raising money for each successive event. She’s so busy that she can only spare me thirty minutes in a Yorkville cafe near her office. She smiles from beneath the clean line of her fringe and insists we move to the hard seats at the front to make sure the recording comes out well. She checks her phone often, always politely, the mark of a woman who is set to change the way opera works in New York and, potentially, America.

One of the greatest issues Morrison found early on with her model of working was that it was hard to get the financial backing to tour experimental, smaller works to the big national venues. Big venues tend not to produce new work, and look for producers who already have a well-formed product to ship in. But due to Morrison’s focus on intimate new works that didn’t necessarily need vast venues, these venues were still more likely to go for a production of Madame Butterfly than, say, a chamber opera about Mata Hari.

“Opera companies who are traditionally doing the La Bohemes have taken some risks on some other pieces, new works, and have had great success and in some cases, many cases, more success than with their Bohemes,” she says. Whitener and HERE have also noticed the appetite for new opera is immense right now: “People eat it up, we sell out, people are banging down the doors to get in.”

Then, out of the blue, LA Opera’s CEO Christopher Koelsch cold-called Morrison. He flew her out to Los Angeles and offered to present two of her works a year in a smaller space called Redcat. It’s a massive coup, and just one of the large venues now working with Beth Morrison Projects: Fort Worth Opera has agreed to present David T. Little’s critically-acclaimed Dog Days before it moves to LA Opera and will also be producing his newest show JFK.

Morrison hopes the progress at these risk-taking opera houses might convince the fairly conservative opera industry to take more chances. “I think there’s been a turning of the tide in the industry,” says Morrison. “This work is really viable, it’s really exciting, it’s connecting with a younger audience. It’s of the now, it’s of our time.”

As a self-described boutique operation and “a producer without a venue,” Morrison straddles a fine line between producer and manager to the people she spearheads. “That was the case with David and Missy and Paula and Nico and now all of them have flowered and blossomed and are now going out and turning into successful mid-career artists. But that was a lot of time that we spent together to bring them up and an investment of my time and my resources and my love and caring and whatever.”

Morrison’s success means her time is becoming increasingly split. It’s a task that will become easier with time. “You know, I’m a maverick and I like to work instinctively and impulsively and you have to do that responsively and responsibly as well. And I’m trying to figure out what that balance is.”

Opera: The Most Relevant Art Form In America?

The new Bloomsbury Group of opera is reason to celebrate: opera is changing, and the talent at its helm is willing to leap between projects and boost each other to greater heights. Everyone knows everyone but everyone wants to meet everyone else, and what seems to be happening in these new operatic productions is an interest in developing a primordial soup of different cultures, musical styles, and theatrical forms to create something of an ultimate art form.

“Opera as a rule used to be a form that an artist arrived in late in life,” says Whitener. “Of course that’s not true of Mozart, but what’s happening is that those kind of strictures are falling away and young composers are saying, ‘I won’t wait to write an opera, I’ll take a stab at it now, and if it’s not great I’ll write another one.’”

Now it’s more than just one Mozart but a whole host of unexpected opera fanatics campaigning for the revolution: the producer who was once a trained singer, the composer who shook up America’s biggest opera house, the tenor who wants to be on Broadway, an industry stalwart whose life was changed by Phillip Glass, and a writer who is trying to bring new nationalities, cultures and genres into the classical music world. The hip new operatic age is upon us.