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Our Obligation to New Work

This week on my Facebook timeline I came across an article announcing, “Fort Worth Opera Fires Longtime General Director Darren K. Woods“. The word “fire” immediately caught my attention. In short, the company was quoted as wanting to find someone who would “focus more on business and management”, and that while they appreciated Mr. Woods artistic visions for the company they didn’t feel he was the right person to continue to move the company forward in fiscal manners. In the abstract, the company’s logic is perfectly reasonable. As much as every artist would like to be able to create without thinking about money, the fact of the matter is we live in the real world and we require money. However, something that stuck out in every article and I’ve spent hours in tech thinking about is the mention of new work. In a statement about parting ways with the company, Mr. Woods said, “I have wanted to go into a little bit different direction where I am dealing more with new music, librettists, singers […]”. In fact, the company gained national attention for its productions of new operas such as  Kevin Putts’ Silent Night, Peter Eötvös’s Angels in AmericaPhilip Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox. It is also worth noting that the company lost $125,000 producing the world premiere of David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s JFK as a part of the 2016 season.

Now, I don’t know enough specific information to criticize Fort Worth Opera’s decision to part ways with its GM, but its had me thinking, how can we support the development of new work in a financially sustainable way? To be clear, I know I don’t have the answer, that’s not what this post is about. This post is about contributing to an ongoing conversation about what our obligation as artists, collaborators, and patrons is to new work.

Fact: theatre, whether spoken, musical, or operatic, cannot survive producing the same 10 shows every season, with the same 10 star names, with the same 10 designers. That said, they do serve a purpose. They bring people in the door, which guarantees attendance and cashflow in a positive direction. They can also be fun! I’d love to see the Nutcracker in NYC, or Wicked. But we can’t keep the form alive if we aren’t taking risks and producing new work. Motzart wrote 22 operas in his life time, but is most famous his later works, which are also considered more innovative. But it is a fact that without those first few operas, written in the conventions of the time, Motzart could have never gotten to The Magic Flute or any of his other widley produced works. Someone had to take a chance on a young 16-year-old. Rossini’s The Barber of Seville was considered a flop when first produced, now it’s a part of regular repertoire.  There is also plenty of work that didn’t stand the test of time. In the 17th century alone, there were over 20 versions of the Greek tragedy of Orpheus written and produced. Of those, only about 2 are still regularly produced. And that’s just one story. There’s got to be a lot of bad in order to get to the good. If we aren’t reaching out to new artists – be they playwrights, composers, etc. – and taking a risk on their innovation we have no way of moving the form forward. We won’t discover the next Marriage of Figaro producing the opera over and over again. We need to work harder at finding a balance between taking risks on new works, and powerful, contemporary stories, and the classics or money-makers. After all, if we aren’t telling new, powerful, contemporary stories, why are we still making art?

It’s a difficult balance to strike. As I said, companies need money to survive. Something I would like to see more from larger regional companies across the country is a commitment to producing brand-new or less-developed contemporary work as a part of the regular season. Small fringe companies are great places for a playwright or composer to test out new work, but their resources can’t compare to a well-established company such as the Huntington, The Public, The Met, or the Boston Lyric Opera. Yes, its a risk to take on a work that doesn’t carry a star-name or has been flying under the radar, but ultimately we must take risks in order to move forward and everyone needs to pull their weight.

In the same vein, as artists and patrons we have an obligation to support new work. Take a chance on a new play, look around town for plays you’ve never heard of. We need to put our money where our mouth is. If you have the means, donate to companies that commit to producing new work. As an artist, take on projects where you’ll be working with new collaborators and new work. Read and listen to new plays and operas and talk to the people you know about producing them. Get conversations started and keep them going! It’s not going to be easy, it never has been, but it’s necessary.

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