These Are Some of the Best Opera Companies in America

A look at groundbreaking companies from Philadelphia to Saint Louis to Santa Fe.

WORDS Fred Cohn
January / February 2020

Jessica Beebe and company in The Wake World at Opera Philadelphia. / Photography by Dominic M. Mercier

Opera is a European invention, but it has been a part of American culture since the colonial period, and now thrives coast to coast. Even if many of the productions mounted at U.S. companies are the works of European masters like Mozart, Verdi and Puccini, domestic stagings give these classics a jolt of New World energy. Meanwhile, American operas, from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess to John Adams’ Nixon in China, are increasingly joining the canon. And the nation’s top companies are commissioning new American works, many of them addressing today’s social and political issues and bringing fresh vitality to the field.

Tried-and-true European titles such as La Traviata, Carmen and Madama Butterfly still form the core of the repertory, but when American companies produce them, they bring to them a very different sensibility from what is seen in Europe. “They take this very old art form and give it a twist and look that feels American,” says Heidi Waleson, opera critic for The Wall Street Journal. “It’s a different aesthetic, making the experience as theatrical as possible.”

A number of companies present their works in festival format, grouping them together to allow travelers the opportunity to immerse themselves in the art form. But even a single night at the opera could well become the highlight of a vacation or business trip. “When you visit a city’s opera company, it adds a whole new layer to your experience,” says Waleson. “You get to see how the cultural institution functions in the context of that city. You won’t be able to find the same experience anywhere else.”

The Wake World at Opera Philadelphia. / Photography by Dominic M. Mercier

Innovation in Philadelphia

Mozart’s The Magic Flute transformed into a silent-movie chase. The world premiere of The Wake World, an opera inspired by the occultist Aleister Crowley and staged in the galleries of the world-famous Barnes Foundation. A multimedia concert blending music, dance, film and painting, starring the trendsetting countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. The revered mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe headlining a gender-bending cabaret act in which she dons a beard and transforms herself into “Blythely Oratonio,” her drag-king alter ego.

This is the kind of stunningly varied fare that Opera Philadelphia has been offering at its annual Festival O. The company was already known for adventurous programming when it first mounted O17 three years ago. But now, for two weeks each September, the wildly popular festival turns the city into a mecca for opera lovers and fans of cutting-edge performance art.

“We think of it as a cross between Sundance and Netflix,” says David Devan, the company’s general director and president. “It’s a binge-worthy experience. We’ve created a multichannel universe, with lots of very different experiences to choose from. It’s a bit like a contemporary-art collection. You can see five operas in two days, and you’ll leave exhausted and thrilled.”

Devan sees the festival as a uniquely Philadelphian phenomenon. “The city is the perfect nexus of sophistication and grit,” he says. “It has a lot of different places in different neighborhoods where we can produce art. This is the birthplace of America. A drive for progress has always been a part of its identity. Our company reflects that American ideal.”

Amanda Majeski, Jarrett Ott, Rod Gilfrey, Ben Bliss and Emily D’Angelo in Così Fan Tutte at The Santa Fe Opera. / Photography by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera, 2019

High Art in the High Desert

No opera house on earth boasts a more spectacular location than The Santa Fe Opera’s Crosby Theatre. Sitting atop a mesa seven miles north of Santa Fe, the structure offers stunning vistas in all directions—even onstage, where an open-air view of the Jemez Mountains often serves as part of the scenery. Although it is covered by a canopy—which accounts for the excellent acoustics—the theater is open on all sides, making the dry, clean desert air very much a part of the sensory impact.

“You experience nature as much as you experience opera,” says Robert Meya, the company’s general director. “It’s what it must have been like to go to the theater in ancient Greece. You can imagine what it was like to experience the art form at its origin.”

The town of Santa Fe itself, with its thriving art scene and gorgeous adobe architecture, adds to the company’s allure. The setting attracts famous singers, taking their place onstage alongside top-level emerging artists in meticulously prepared stagings. The Santa Fe Opera’s seasons showcase classic titles—La Bohème, Lucia di Lammermoor—as well as new and recent works like the 2017 world premiere of Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. The 2018 production of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic was especially meaningful: The story of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the piece is set in Los Alamos, 30 miles up the road from the opera house. And last summer, an inventive staging of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte reinterpreted the 230-year-old opera as a bracingly contemporary contemplation of sex and betrayal.

The summer 2020 season will feature another world premiere: Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, based on Hwang’s hit play. The roster includes The Barber of Seville, The Magic Flute and Rusalka, Antonin Dvořák’s version of “The Little Mermaid.” But the most ambitious undertaking of all will be Tristan und Isolde, The Santa Fe Opera’s first foray into Wagner.

Susan Graham in Regina at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. / Photography by Ken Howard for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, 2018

Show-Me Opera

The no-nonsense spirit of Missouri pervades Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the state’s world-class opera company. It’s no coincidence that its name features the word “theatre”: OTSL aims to create riveting dramatic experiences that can be enjoyed by newcomers and aficionados alike. Case in point: the 2018 production of Marc Blitzstein’s seldom performed opera Regina, a 1948 adaptation of The Little Foxes that proved to be every bit as gripping as the original Lillian Hellman play.

All OTSL productions are in English, with foreign-language works presented in translation, allowing an American audience to experience the drama as directly as in a play or movie. “We take pride in our accessibility,” says Andrew Jorgensen, the company’s general director. “By design we aren’t stuffy and pretentious. We believe that opera is for everybody.”

A big part of the OTSL experience is its location on the Webster University campus, the surrounding grounds turned into picnic and café areas where audience members dine before the performance, making the opera itself part of a larger, hugely festive evening. After each show, visitors can enjoy a nightcap under a tent and mingle with the singers. “Part of the thrill of Opera Theatre,” Jorgensen says, “is going out on the lawn, toasting with old and new friends to the beauty of opera.” OTSL’s spring 2020 season includes the perennial favorites Carmen and Die Fledermaus, along with Susannah, Carlisle Floyd’s 1955 opera about religious intolerance in Appalachia, plus a world premiere: Tobias Picker’s Awakenings, based on the Oliver Sacks book that served as the basis for the 1990 Robert De Niro/Robin Williams hit movie.


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