I recently wrote in the New Yorker about the Chicago Lyric Opera's premiere production of William Bolcom's A Wedding. At the head of the piece I praised the company for its long-standing commitment to American opera, while also noting that the forced departure of artistic director Matthew Epstein — reports of which broke on the day my column closed — signaled a possible downturn. Now this article by Wynne Delacoma brings the sad news that the Lyric's 2005-6 season will, for the first time in 15 years, include no American opera. Despite its general financial health, the company apparently feels a dire need to coddle its core donors and subscribers, who want traditional productions of familiar repertory. The usual depressing story of retrenchment, similar to what happened with Pamela Rosenberg in San Francisco. Note one thing, though. Delacoma's article names as the primary issue among Chicago conservatives a sexed-up Rigoletto by Christopher "You have to throw cold water on an audience" Alden. I think that premieres and twentieth-century repertory are signs of a progressive spirit; I don't think the same of director-driven opera. I still hope these retrenching companies can find a way to recommit themselves to new opera, because composers are doing something far more brave and far more important. Opera directors are cheap substitutes for opera composers. Invest in the real thing.
Addendum: Charles Downey at ionarts picks up this post, amplifies it with reference to a modish Robert Carsen Traviata, and supplies the perfect kicker: "Couldn't we just have a new opera that was actually about a drug-addicted jet-set prostitute in Las Vegas, rather than trying to shoehorn a 150-year-old opera into such a story?"