Must reading

No, not this blog post. But rather Ron Rosenbaum’s blast at Dr. Atomic, on the Slate site and linked today from ArtsJournal. The picture it paints is pretty devastating. Smart, educated, cultured writer isn’t an opera fan, but respects opera. He goes to the Dr. Atomic premiere at the Met, expecting serious art, and instead thinks he’s seen something empty and pretentious. Of course, you might say that this is just his own take, and you also might damn him for leaving at intermission, which means that he’s disqualified (by the normal standards that apply to critics) from writing a review.

But this isn’t a review. It’s a personal essay, and the motivation for walking out was how much Ronsenbaum hated what he’d seen. I think he’s on to something, the question being whether classical music has anything to say to the world outside it about contemporary life, and the answer, in this case, being no. Some people — maybe a lot of people — will disagree, of course, and one thing I noticed when I went (not to the first night, but to a later performance) was that the audience was clearly not an opera crowd.

That’s a good thing for classical music, and compares very favorably with the audience at the Santa Fe Opera this summer for Saariaho’s Adriana Mater, which was essentially the opera crowd, meaning (at least to me) that the piece didn’t register (in a very artsy city) as a serious piece of contemporary art. From that point of view, it’s good to see non-opera people at the Met for Dr. Atomic, just as it was to see them at Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten earlier this year, even if I didn’t like the piece at all. Bringing classical music into contemporary artistic life is a good thing, more important than my own taste.

Mostly I agree with Rosenbaum. I might not feel as strongly as he does, maybe because I’m a musician, and responded strongly to the music, which is mostly very strong, and sometimes powerful. Overall, Dr. Atomic is miles above most new operas, both musically, and in how contemporary it feels, and, even more, how contemporary it wants to be. But that makes me all the more upset at what I think it doesn’t do.

My view of it was echoed — or really pre-echoed, since I heard this before I saw the piece — by a friend, who said he’d grade it as a B, but that this was a problem, because it needed to be an A. I’d browsed through the vocal score, and had formed some tentative opinions, and suggested that I’d put my friend’s opinion a little more strongly — the opera, I thought, announced it was an A. And so of course it even more strongly needed to be that good.

When I saw it, I thought I’d sensed exactly what the problem is. The piece, for me, carries a constant subtext about its own significance. “This is strong, important art.” All that, of course, is reinforced by the opera’s presence at the Met, by its subject, by Adams’ reputation, and by the New Yorker printing part of Adams’ newly published memoir, to coincide with the production. But beyond all that, the piece itself seems to say that it’s important.

Which meant, for me, that it felt pretentious, especially since (and here’s where I most strongly agree with Rosenbaum) it doesn’t say very much. In fact, it’s very safe. It shows us something that’s well-known, and much discussed — the shock of the first atomic bomb, the feeling that something dangerous had been unleashed, and the doubts of Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the effort to create the bomb. None of this is new, to put it mildly, and the opera had nothing new to say about it. Oppenheimer is distressed. Well, we knew that, and no matter how powerfully he sings about that at the end of the first act — to the text of a John Donne poem which, like much of the libretto, only tangentially touches what was going on — we still haven’t learned or even felt anything that we (as a society) haven’t gone through many times before.

Reinforcing this is how obvious some moments on. About the Native American character (whom Rosenbaum very neatly skewers), the less said the better. An earth mother, who’s more connected to what matters than the shallow, white scientists — a cliché that made me roll my eyes. And, in a way even worse, the ending of the opera, with a Japanese recorded voice asking for help, after the bomb goes off.

This worked quite wonderfully as music — a stronger ending, purely sonically, than simply letting the orchestra die out. And, again musically, it balanced the recorded sound at the start of the opera. But it’s another cliché, and one with hoary antecedents all over popular culture. For instance: the final moment of Fail-Safe, a film about atomic war, where we see ordinary people going about their business — children playing — just before the Russians nuke New York. For instance: an early episode of the Battlestar Galactica remake, where the space command is forced to abandon some ships with many people on them, and, just before the robot Cylons nuke the ships, we see a child at play.

Yes, nuclear bombs have victims, but my two examples actually come off more strongly (at least to me) than the end of Dr. Atomic does, because in both cases the victims die because of genuinely difficult (and new) developments. We see things that actually could happen, dilemmas that might afflict us in the future, instead of (in Dr. Atomic) a well known piece of history from which we can’t learn anything we don’t already know. Better to have shown us something from a nuclear dilemma we might face today — North Korea cynically manipulating nuclear fears to gain some diplomatic points; the Pakistani scientist who wanted to give nuclear help to terrorists; Israel’s reported determination to use nuclear bombs (more readily, apparently, than other countries would — which isn’t a judgment, by the way, on the state of Israel, but might be something Israelis think about); officials of the former Soviet Union who might have thought of selling (or maybe did sell) nuclear material to terrorists.

All these things are genuine dilemmas in our current world, and there are many more of them. (The India/Pakistan nuclear faceoff; the constant nuclear readiness of the US and Russia, and so much more.) The opera is supposed to be about a Faustian bargain — you gain knowledge, you gain power, but there are consequences. We now live in the troubled wake of that bargain, but what strikes me — and could be a powerful subject for a novel or an opera or a play — is how little people think about the consequences, about the meaning of any kind of nuclear war. Do the North Koreans or Iranians or Israelis or the American military or Pakistanis or Al Quaeda or the Russian military think much about what nuclear attacks would actually be like? Do they think about the victims?

I’m guessing that our sensibilities have been dulled, through long familiarity (and also from how lucky we’ve been not to have any nuclear attacks since Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Maybe, if that’s really true, Dr. Atomic is a healthy wakeup call, but on the other hand, it might help to lull us further, because in a way it pats us on the back (and pats itself even more) for being so concerned. There’s nothing in it that could help us figure out what Israel (for instance) ought to do, if its back is to the wall, with its survival hanging by a thread.

About the music. For me the most successful music comes in the second act, which has been criticized because nothing happens. Essentially we wait until the bomb is tested for the first time, with concerns about the weather (and larger concerns about whether the bomb will work at all) coming off as very minor. But opera is a perfect medium for drama in which nothing happens, because the music can carry us. Adams’ music triumphantly does, and then tops itself with the moments leading right up to the explosion. I think — and I really mean it — that this is, in purely visceral terms, one of the most powerful musical sequences in any opera.

But the music that does all this is instrumental, or rather it’s the orchestral music that’s powerful enough to carry the opera. I found the vocal music more pedestrian, both when I looked through the score, and when I heard it. It’s not awful, and sets the words with a fair amount of finesse. But it doesn’t have much character — one person on stage sounds pretty much like another, except for obvious things, like moments where words might be highlighted to make a sarcastic point, or sequences of lyrical introspection. There’s no inner character, no sense that the people on stage have distinct personalities, no sense of who they are, or really that they’re anyone at all, except (again) for the very broadest strokes of external characterization.

One exception is Oppenheimer’s John Donne aria, which ends the first act (and it’s surely one not-so-secret secret of the opera’s success that the endings of both acts are powerful), and which really does succeed (for me) as vocal music, though as drama it seemed to say nothing more than “I’m suffering! I’m suffering!” But it said this with a lot of musical refinement. I wonder, if the opera had been called Oppenheimer (in place of the rather coy title it actually has), whether many people then might have expected more from it, if they’d have asked whether anything it says about its title character is really new or cogent.

As a footnote, I’ll add that similar questions — and reactions similar to Rosenbaum’s — surfaced, at least to me, at the long-ago New York premiere of Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China. All the music professionals I spoke to at intermission were tremendously impresssed: “At last an opera that really says something.” While dance and theater people I spoke to — maybe because they were more used to seeing art in their fields with some contemporary relevance — weren’t happy at all: “What this opera says about Nixon is completely wrong.” It’s like the fabled talking dog. After you get used to it talking, you start to look at what it says.

Adams’ second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, of course really does go into new and tricky territory, trying to get inside the minds of terrorists, And therefore it’s had a lot of trouble. I don’t mean to say that controversy is any proof of value, especially artistic value, but I’m struck again by how safe Dr. Atomic is, how there’s nothing in it anybody could object to. (Except, maybe, extreme militarists, who might insist that any hesitation in the possible use of America’s nuclear arsenal would be a kind of treason. But such people, if they still exist, haven’t been part of America’s national debate for quite a while.)

And that, for me, should raise some doubts. The opera, in the end, seems far too easy to be saying things with any chance of being as important as the subtext of the work (again, at least to me) keeps telling us they are.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Bill says

    Thank God someone finally said it ! Although this work in particular I’ll still need to hear and judge for myself.

    But in general ‘ordinary’ people are not allowed to critique fine art in any form. I’ve been told that I’ve been in no position to cast judgement on some music because I’m not part of the arts community that produced it. This is such a widespread belief that large parts of the general public believe it too. Talk about an attitude that limits your audience.

    Three cheers for Ron Rosenbaum :^)

    I can imagine big collisions with classical music people — including the critics Rosenbaum mentions — over this. I can also imagine that there are people outside classical music who like the piece. There was a curious opinion piece in the NY Times science section, by one of their science writers, about it. He didn’t say much about the piece itself, more about his thoughts about the bomb (if I’m remembering correctly). But certainly he treated the piece as a respectably major event, worth his scrutiny. This is a good thing for classical music, whatever any of us might think about the opera.

    But what’s really notable to me are the different perspectives people bring, inside and outside the field. People inside the field, especially those who strongly support new music, may well react first and foremost to the music. I know I did. Someone I know and I were commenting, after seeing the opera, that we didn’t dislike it as much as we thought we would (both of us had had prior exposure from either the score or a video). In my case, that was certainly because I liked the music. Others will go further, and take the music as the main way to measure the quality of the work.

    But then see what Rosenbaum says. He thinks the music is just fine, but that’s not enough for him. In fact, I think he expects the music to be good. Why wouldn’t it be? Big new opera by a major composer, at the Met. Damn well ought to be good music. But so what? He’s not going to the piece for only a musical experience, just as nobody (or certainly not many people) went to Angels in America to glory in how well-written the dialogue was. You want something more. Rosenbaum wants an encounter with a full work of art, and was disappointed in what he got. Music people– including to some extent me — start with the music, and think the whole work of art gets its heft from that.

    At this point, we could segue into discussions of opera, about the comparative roles of music and libretto. But, though we accept operas from the past with what we now think are silly libretti, I wonder how silly the libretti might have seemed when the operas were new. And, above all, i think standards have changed in our time. It’s one thing to be in Italy in 1850, where there wasn’t theater, or symphonic music, or hardly any to speak of. Opera was the predominant public entertainment, along with ballets, which were danced between acts of operas. So when a new opera came along, it stood apart from other things, and could mainly be compared to other operas.

    That can’t be true now. New operas immediately go into a world where we have films, plays, musicals, you name it. So they’ll have to compete with everything else, and be judged by the same standards. Which makes me wonder — if Dr. Atomic had been a film, and had more or less the same text (now functioning as a screenplay), and the same approach to its story, what would we have thought? I know that there are differences. The poetry Oppenheimer and his wife sing during their scenes together makes much more sense sung, i think, than it might make spoken, in a film. An opera, very likely, can be more stylized than a film. But maybe, if Dr. Atomic had been a film, there would have been much sharper criticism of what it says, or really of whether it says much at all. Film critics would, I think, be much quicker to say, “Terrific cinematography, but the rest is disappointing.”

  2. says

    Very interesting post. I like the opera, but I think you make some very valid points. Perhaps, like your friend, I would give it a B (maybe a B+). The music is strong in some points and yet doesn’t succeed in others. I haven’t seen this production, so I can’t comment on the recent changes from the earlier version – but it sounds as if the overall thrust of the opera hasn’t changed.

    In the process of working on a opera I will take your comments onboard. We are very much approaching this project from the vantage point of what film and television do in terms of similar entertainment. In a world where the audience has more choices for entertainment, and more versed in what’s possible, opera can’t afford to just be opera anymore.

  3. Dora Ohrenstein says

    What I haven’t seen addressed in this discussion, was the total failure of Adams and collaborators to create a theatrical experience. Italian operas are a great deal more than their “silly librettos.” Who can leave Rigoletto or Madame Butterfly without being thoroughly moved? I see no evidence that anyone involved in this project gave a moment’s thought to the real task of opera — to bring the audience on an emotional journey using a mix of powerful forces. It makes no difference that the opera had nothing new to say about Oppenheimer; that’s not what opera is supposed to do, it’s not an intellectual essay. Powerful themes were in fact raised: Oppenheimer’s doubt, the conflicts in his marriage, but the libretto supplied no interaction between the characters (other than an exchange about the General’s diet), no emotional development of any kind. Three hours of dread about a foregone conclusion does not count as drama, and ending it with the voice of a Japanese woman was as cheesy as could be.

    Adams writes some fine music for orchestra, but I agree, hasn’t any feel whatsoever for the voice and vocal music. It goes further than lack of characterization in the vocal writing: there is no connection between the inflection and portent of the words and the way Adams sets it, just generic 20th century leaping around the singers’ range and square rhythms that fail to capture the inflection of speech.

    Adams is a great guy, but I am sorely disappointed that an artist of his calibre can fail to address the central aim of what the operatic art is all about.

    Good points, Dora. Especially since you’re a singer. Adams doesn’t seem to have much sense of theater. The theatrical impetus in his operas seems to come from Peter Sellars, or at least that’s been my take. Which leads to the odd situation (though maybe not completely uncommon these days) of an opera composer being led by theatrical collaborators. Unfortunately, they can’t make the music theatrical.

  4. richard says

    There are opera composers and there are instrumental composers and never shall the twain meet. (except for Mozart)

    And Berg and Debussy, but you’re right. Opera composing is a special talent, and not all composers have it. Some of those who do — Bellini, Massenet, Donizetti — aren’t so good at writing anything else.

  5. says

    A few disjunct points –

    John Adams is a reluctant opera composer: he doesn’t like operatic singing (hence the amplification of both singers and orchestra in the SF premiere of Doctor Atomic) and his librettos…well, I agree about the dramatic weaknesses in Atomic, which I like very much overall, and I hated the libretto of A Flowering Tree so much that it kept me from really hearing the music.

    A big problem with the classical music world today is that we want every piece to be an A+ piece. In the 18th and 19th centuries, lots of operas failed; they were put on a couple of times and were then lost to history. Some got revived successfully later; others weren’t any good and disappeared. There is less room for failure and for a learning curve now, and for most composers it takes time to develop a feel for the dramatic. So I am not convinced that the argument about whether Doctor Atomic is an A or B work is especially valid. Every work is not a masterpiece. It’s unreasonable for us to expect that.

    In San Francisco and in NY, I know a lot of people who are not opera or classical music fans who are turning out for Doctor Atomic. They want to see for themselves; they respond to the music and the libretto in very different ways. So I don’t take your point, Greg, about the need for relevance, connection, etc. This opera is attracting people who don’t normally go to classical music performances. I’m glad they’re not reaching the same conclusions you are and just skipping it because it’s not contemporary or relevant enough.

    Hi, Lisa. I think you might have missed my point about the A or B work, or maybe I didn’t make it clearly enough. I don’t expect any new classical piece to be A+, and in fact my only judgment is whether I liked it or not. But I thought Dr. Atomic carried a subtext that said, “I really am an A+,” and so I thought its failure to get that grade (from me, anyway) was notable.

    And I agree — people are going to see it who wouldn’t normally go to classical music. You could see that with one glance at the crowd at the Met. But then comes the question of what they thought of it. Ron Rosenbaum was one of those people. He registered a scathing dissent. I had lunch with a friend in the biz last week who also thought the opera was appalling, and went to it in San Francisco with a whole group of people who weren’t from the classical music world, including some who’d been at Los Alamos with Oppenheimer. He noticed that the reaction was odd — the piece wasn’t a subject for discussion at all. Nobody seemed to have any feeling about it at all.

    For me, the ideal would be that new classical works would get the same attention as new movies, the same critical scrutiny, and the same shrug when they don’t work out. We don’t deplore the state of movies or give up on them when we see a bad one, or, conversely, run to defend movies even though one of them was bad. We just take bad movies in stride. I wish that was true for new operas — though then, if the majority were bad, we’d have to note that (as I think we don’t now), and say that something’s wrong. What actually happens, I think, is that new operas get a pass — people in our business often think they’re better than they are, or else assume that position publicly, in order to defend the idea of new opera. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with two classical music professionals after The Great Gatsby was premiered at the Met. Both these people said they liked it. I asked: “Did any of it excite you, or did any of it come even close, for you, to having the same impact as the book?” “Of course not,” they said, with no hesitation. Which seems to me like a severe criticism of the opera, far more severe than their initial judgment had been. Their gut, in other words, had quite a different opinion from the one they’d first stated.

  6. says

    And one last disjunct point: the opera seemed more dramatic to me in the HD broadcast, and I take that to be because the HD director’s cutting and panning and so on were able to create a kind of cinematic drama that is not available on the stage when you’re in the house.

  7. says

    In addition to Lisa’s telling points, especially about everything needing to be a masterpiece or else we dismiss it, I’d like to note something about your comment about the people outside the music field not talking about the music.

    In popular music, especially live events, the experience is first about the lifestyle, second about the lyrics, and third, if at all, about the music.

    Also, aren’t all markets niche markets these days?

  8. says

    Greg, yeah, I’d say you didn’t make that point so clearly. Everything Adams writes is composed with great confidence, as well it should be. Of course it’s going to declare its quality and pedigree. And lots of Doctor Atomic is gloriously beautiful, and earns that A.

    I think you are wrong to say that new operas get a pass. Maybe you haven’t heard that many at the Met in the last ten years. Harvey Milk, Dangerous Liaisons, and A Streetcar Named Desire weren’t particularly well received. I thought The Bonesetter’s Daughter sucked (haven’t blogged it yet, being way behind). Appomattox got mixed reviews; my own was positive but on the other hand, I doubt it will be staged elsewhere, and it certainly won’t have the string of performances Doctor Atomic is getting.

    Expanding a bit on what Steve says, so what if Adriana Mater attracted primarily the opera crowd in Santa Fe? Do you critize jazz performances for only attracting jazz fans?

    I think new operas get a comparative pass. That is, pieces like Streetcar that should never have been staged at all, get staged. A movie that feeble would most likely never have been made. New operas get produced, in cases when the composer doesn’t have the faintest idea how to write an opera. That simply doesn’t happen in most other arts, or in popular culture. At least we can take some level of competence for granted. Exceptions usually involve superfamous celebrities, like Madonna, who just now directed a film, with apparently no directing chops. But Previn isn’t on her level, celebritywise.

    As for jazz shows attracting jazz fans, sure. In fact I raise this issue in the very first pages of the new version of my book. Normally every genre, activity, art form, branch of entertainment, every sport, whatever draws an audience, draws a crowd that likes whatever the thing is. There’s nothing wrong with that.

    But then many activities, especially those with broad cultural reach, will jump out of their box from time to time, and do something that resonates throughout the culture, or throughout a community. The Phillies winning the word series is a recent example. The whole city went crazy. People who don’t normally pay much attention to baseball were ecstatic.

    Or take Angels in America. You didn’t have to go to theater very often to know how important that play was. Eventually the film version showed up on PBS. (Or was it HBO?)

    Or The Sopranos. Almost all cultured America talked about that. Anne and I — we don’t normally have drama TV shows we both follow — watched it religiously. A couple I know, both classical music professionals, were catching up on the DVDs. Again, they’re not TV people.

    This most notably doesn’t happen with classical music events. Maybe, as one commenter suggested, Marian Anderson jumped over the barrier, and so did Leonard Bernstein, with his Beethoven 9th at the Berlin Wall. Or Van Cliburn winning the Tchaikovsky competition (which now seems like it happened centuries ago, even though I can remember it vividly, which includes the memory of what the LP cover looked like, and how you’d see that LP in the homes of people who generally didn’t buy classical recordings). But these are all cases of classical music attaching itself to something outside it. The music itself wasn’t the event.

    This wasn’t true in centuries past. Wagner became the center of the arts world in the last part of the 19th century. Some people were transported by him, some hated him, but hardly anyone was neutral. As we know, the eruption went far beyond music. When Schoenberg, swimming in boiling water (as he later described it), developed atonal music, he was part of a much broader art movement, as his bonding with Kandinsky shows.

    And, much later, in the 1940s, Virgil Thomson could talk about an intellectual audience, an audience of artists and art-friendly people, and intellectuals (and, as he said, women in peasant blouses, which is to say the outer circle of hipsters of the time), would show up at certain classical performances, and were conspicuously absent at others. Now, the present equivalent of such people is conspicuously absent at just about all classical events, at least in the mainstream of classical music. Classical music, in the wider world of arts and intellect, simply doesn’t function. I’ve had memorable evenings and lunches with artists and scholars who can talk intelligently about, let’s say, visual art, and don’t know anything about classical music. I remember one dinner with a reasonably well-known mystery writer, a notable cultural theorist, and some theater people, in which conversation stopped when I said what I did for a living. Nobody knew enough about classical music to say anything at all about it. These experiences are common.

    Jazz, currently, is in the same position. Once, an album like Kind of Blue could penetrate the culture. All sorts of people who didn’t normally buy jazz recordings had it. Maybe Keith Jarrett’s Cologne concert, and some of his other improvised recordings, were in the same position 30 years ago. But now I think very little that happens in jazz influences the culture at large, and that’s a problem. My nephew is a jazz musician, a very good one with a growing career, and he doesn’t expect anyone at his gigs except other jazz musicians and jazz students. The situation for jazz is, I think, even worse than it is for classical music.

    If classical music were holding its own, we could say “so what” to much of this. But over the past couple of decades, there’s been some notable erosion in audiences, not talked about publicly, but apparently present. (I say “apparently” because all the statistical measures I’ve seen or heard about, privately or anecdotally, support this, but the data hasn’t been properly gathered in many areas — group II and IIi orchestras, to use the League’s classification, and chamber music, for instance.) And the audience has been aging for 50 years.

    The aging of the audience, for me, is the prime measure of the cultural fading of classical music. Go back to the 1950s, and you find a classical audience with a median age in the low 30s, basically the same as the general population. In the ’60s, it started aging, and the process has continued ever since (with some interesting footnotes about the present, now that classical music organizations market more intensively than they ever have). This aging, I think, demonstrates what happens when an art form slowly moves away from the center of a culture. The people most loyal to it remain the people who became loyal at a time in the past when classical music made the kind of connections I’m talking about. And new people, as time goes on, don’t join the club in anything like the numbers in past generations.

    These issues are far more complex than I’ve been able to outline here. But they’re very pressing.

  9. says

    You need to look at Matthew Guerrierri’s posting some time back about the age of the audience relative to the overall age of the population. He found some interesting things.

    A movie that feeble would most likely never have been made. New operas get produced, in cases when the composer doesn’t have the faintest idea how to write an opera. That simply doesn’t happen in most other arts, or in popular culture.

    I’m not convinced that your assertion about feeble movies is correct, mostly because you and I see the good stuff, the stuff that has been vetted by agents and studios and widely distributed and reviewed. Probably we make choices about which movies we see that result in our seeing the good movies. It’s a fraction of the movies that get made, and I have seen more than a few commercial films that were barely successful. Yes, you do have the weasel words “most likely” in there.

    You are, however, pointing to real problems in how new operas are developed.

    1. Composer don’t have many chances to experiment and possibly fail because opera is so expensive to produce. I mean, would you have hired Richard Wagner to write an opera if you’d only heard Die Feen? (I’m aware that he produced it on spec, but the point is that he lived at a time and place when he could produce an opera on spec.) But the opportunity to fail is a necessary part of developing new works or expertise in any given musical area. A young composer has way more possibilities for getting a new string quartet performed, and learning from that, than getting an opera performed.

    2. The movie parallel might be: film is cheap and you can experiment using digital video in ways that might be tough to do musically. That is, an aspiring filmmaker can make a lot of 15 or 30 minute films, screen them for friends, and get useful feedback. Not so easy to do with an opera. There aren’t a lot of workshop possibilities out there, plus iterating an opera is tough because of the cost. Verdi had chances to revise in rehearsal and between productions, but that came when he was the greatest opera composer in Europe.

    Previn’s a pretty big star as a conductor, though I would say not in the first tier. However, I’m not sure whether celebrity is the right measure of whether someone gets to take the plunge in a new artistic area. Lorin Maazel and 1984 – is that a good parallel to the Madonna movie? He even financed it himself.

    3. Not many intendants have experience in developing new operas and cultivating composers. David Gockley has more of this experience than any other director of an American opera company, and he still didn’t pull the plug on Bonesetter. Why not? Well, as you get closer to the premiere, it gets harder and harder to do so. And, you know, while I thought it sucked, it sold out. A purely commercial success that brings in lots of non-opera-goers (and it did) is still a success – even if I never want to hear another note by Stewart Wallace. (I should note that he turned Bonesetter down in Houston, and took a chance on it because Tam is a local celebrity in SF. Perhaps this ties in with your point about Madonna.)

    4. You can’t make a living writing operas, which was possible in particular times and places and isn’t now. See the above, about expense, etc. There is no pipeline, there are no generally accepted stylistic standards, etc. How are composer to learn this craft?

    About Gatsby, Harbison is a very good composer, and it wasn’t his first opera – I believe there is a Winter’s Tale. I don’t know what it would take for him to write a great opera; I’m not even sure if Gatsby is a good operatic subject or not.

    As far as opera and cultural impact, or at least visibility, you’re skipping over the 50s, 60s, and even 70s, when opea was much more visible on TV than it is now. Beverly Sills on Sesame Street, the Bell Telephone Hour, etc., etc. Of course new operas aren’t making a lot of general cultural impact. There aren’t enough of them. See the above.